Romie Anderson and Maurice Young both landed in the Peoria County Jail after decades of minor crimes. That was a stroke of luck for both of them.
In jail, both men ended up in a GED class together and encouraged each other not to quit. Now the two are armed with GED degrees, job references from the Peoria County Sheriff and burning ambition to overcome their pasts.
For Romie, the past was being taken from his mother at birth in Chicago and living in a series of foster homes in Peoria where he was abused. He was in the sixth grade at the old White Elementary School when he figured the only way to get away from his abusive foster parents was to drop out of school and go underground. He was 12. He slept in abandoned cars and buildings.
“I didn’t know how to ask for help or who to ask. I lived with raccoons, birds and possums,” he said. “It was scary, but I was free.”
Now 26, Romie is determined to be a father for his daughter and a wage earner.
Maurice, 36, grew up in Peoria sometimes living with his father, sometimes with his mother and finally with his grandmother.
“She was old, and there were 18 other kids in the house,” he said.
He was arrested for stealing at age 11. More arrests followed and he ended up in prison.
“In the penitentiary, it was more about survival than getting an education,” he said. “Here, this program is not just about the GED. There is a lot about parenting, reentry, computer classes, interviewing.
“The staff here doesn’t treat us like we are all bad people. Yes, I made mistakes. Yes, I could have done better. This facility gives me the opportunity to get out of here with a job waiting for me. To be a better parent. To be a better friend. That’s an overwhelming opportunity.”
The GED program at the jail operates in concert with classes covering job training skills, computer classes and parenting classes. Last year, the program operated with $96,542 in grant funding. It does not use local property tax revenues.
“This program is helping people go from being tax drainers to tax payers,” said Beth Crider Derry, Peoria regional superintendent of schools and a big supporter of the jail program.
Her program director, Diann Duke, said 132 students went through the program last year.
“Anyone who does a little research can clearly see that the data shows incarcerated people reenter society with greater success and jobs after going through these educational programs,” Duke said. “We teach employability skills.”
She said, “The strength of this program is not just helping students pass the GED. We help them acquire skills. It’s a partnership, preparing them to get jobs.”
Sheriff Brian Asbell and Jail Superintendent Ronda Guyton support the program.
“This place is not a warehouse. The more that’s invested in job training and social programs, the lower the recidivism rate,” Asbell said. “Probably 40 percent of inmates belong here, 60 percent do not belong here.”
He reaches out to businesses in the community, looking for people who will hire released inmates and provide jobs paying a living wage. “Many people are here because they committed crimes to survive, to put food on the table,” Asbell said. “I’m in a position where I can change that.”
(See poem by Romie Anderson and essay by Maurice Young below.)
BY ROMIE ANDERSON
What is an Opportunity?
It is something that I can use for free.
Or is it something that can ruin me?
Please show me something that will prove to me
That if I remove my locks, or renew my keys,
That I will be introduced to the truest me.
I’ve grown so tired of this world using me
As an example of what a fool could be.
So the biggest thing that I could ever do for me
Is to give myself an opportunity.
I know that courtrooms and jail cells ain’t new to me
But how can the judge judge me off of a person that I use to be?
Another statistic is what I refuse to be
And the Department of Corrections is not an opportunity.
I was once a man blinded by lunacy
But whoever said a “diamond in the rough” couldn’t turn
Out to be a precious piece of jewelry?
If I expressed to you all of my “Soon to be’s”
Would you truthfully give me an opportunity?
A man is dead without an education
But what about the diploma of life?
The only way that this GED
Can keep me free
Is if I separate my wrongs from my rights.
Without a for sure income
All of these poor children
Will be a victim of the court system.
When that torch in them
Just needed to be enlightened.
I shook hands with Brooke Brighten
And I wonder, did she see the forecast in my soul
For my crazy ways
For the fun times.
Tell Success to scoot over and make room for me
Because I just won the fight between fear and opportunity.
My name is Maurice Young. I have been on both sides of the fence in my life. I have made a lot of negative decisions that have landed me right back in jail.
We all struggle in our life’s paths. Past failures can bring on new failures that hinder us from succeeding. A continuous cycle of negative behavior can cause a repetitive state of discouragement. A person without the right set of skills cannot better himself in society where resources may be limited. Now that person is left jobless, with an uncertain future. Hence, the cycle of the repeated offender.
The Peoria County Regional office of Education has provided the Peoria County Jail with a staff of teachers (Sue, Bill, Sandy and Director Diann G. Duke) to whom I am truly grateful for helping me to obtain a GED and seven other certificates. The programs are very important, giving inmates the tools they need to obtain the credentials needed to help inmates better their future upon release. The programs that are available are GED, Parenting 123, Food Sanitation, manufacturing, Re-Entry Strategies, Job Partnership as well as others the Peoria County Jail offers. These classes are available to all inmates who apply themselves.
I need to apply the 3’C’s of Life: Choice, Change, Challenge. I have to change my past choices from negative to positive and challenge myself to succeed.