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Darrell R., St. Leonard’s Ministries

April 4, 2011

Darrell R. grew up in a middle-class home. His family was never short of money, and his mother and grandmother provided him not only with material possessions, but with guidance, support, and a strong set of values. Darrell’s friends graduated from high school and set off for destinations including Northwestern, the University of Iowa, and Bradley University. When Darrell was eighteen, however, he entered Cook County Jail to begin what would be a fifteen-year stay in the Illinois state penitentiary system.

Although his material needs were being met, as an adolescent Darrell was lured by the money and notoriety that came with being on the streets and, eventually, selling drugs. “There’s this mentality that you need to look a certain way, buy certain things,” he says. “You don’t think, ‘I’ll really hustle in school, then I’ll succeed in my trade.’ You want it now, and a job at McDonald’s won’t do it.”

As Darrell got older, he made what he sees now as an increasingly poor series of decisions. At school, he hid his academic interests and abilities, deliberately underperforming because “nobody wants to be a nerd.” Eventually he dropped out altogether and became increasingly involved in criminal activity. His downward spiral culminated with his role in an incident resulting in the murder of an associate. “I knew in my heart that what I was doing was wrong,” he says, “but my thinking was distorted. I found ways to condone it.”

Darrell’s thinking began to change when he was transferred to Menard Correctional Center, the largest maximum-security prison in Illinois. “It was surreal,” he remembers. “There’s a lot of aggression; it’s a dog-eat-dog environment. And I was still bullheaded, not taking orders. But I started to think when I started talking to some of the lifers. It kind of stopped me in my tracks to realize that the guy I was working out with was never going to go home.” Darrell followed the rules, and his good behavior was rewarded with transfers to progressively less restrictive facilities. As an inmate, Darrell earned his GED, as well as associate’s degrees in General Studies and Liberal Studies.

Despite his progress, however, when Darrell was released, he felt that he still needed assistance with the transition . He heard about St. Leonard’s House from a peer counselor and, impressed, asked to be admitted. “Coming to prison can be kind of a neighborhood reunion,” Darrell observes. “And when you get out, the neighborhood is waiting to celebrate with you. I knew my old friends would be ringing my doorbell, reminding me that I needed money, and I didn’t want that. That just starts it all up again.” Also, Darrell says, he wanted to work on what he now describes as the “behavioral problems” at the root of his incarceration.

At St. Leonard’s, Darrell received group and individual therapy and participated in classes that gave him new insight into his own behavior. “I remember thinking at first that listening to people in recovery talk had nothing to do with me, because I had never had an addiction. Then I realized that if you replaced the word ‘drugs’ with the word ‘money,’ every one of them could be telling my story.” Darrell learned specific skills, including budgeting, that related directly to his personal history and triggers. He also completed courses in maintenance and construction that helped him secure employment now that he has completed the St. Leonard’s program and is living independently.

Darrell’s real passion, however, is working with youth. Motivated by his own experiences as well as by the increasing violence in Chicago’s schools, Darrell regularly speaks with teens. “I tell them not to take entertainment seriously. I tried some of the things in the songs, and I ended up doing fifteen years. I tell them to concentrate on what really matters. But mostly I tell kids to think—actions have consequences, often permanent ones.”