Sheriff's boot camp teams up with Land Bank
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Chicago Tribune by Tara Kadioglu
Young men in neon yellow jumpsuits and construction hats sawed down wooden remains of a derelict two-story home in Chicago's south suburb of Phoenix, the black letters "
DOC" stamped across their backs.
"We're using saws, cutting, dismantling, hammering nails," said worker Dion Jones, 29, of a typical day's work on the demolition project, which started in February and was scheduled to wrap up last week.
"It's time-consuming and it helps the time fly by," he added. "Instead of being inside the building all day, you get some fresh air."
The building Jones referred to is a Cook County detention facility at 3206 S. California Ave.
The best thing about the boot camp program overall is a second chance. Six months of discipline, it's hard, but it makes you stronger for the world. - Dion Jones
Jones and the other young men work for free for the Cook County Department of Corrections as part of a program through which select nonviolent criminal offenders serve their sentences by deconstructing abandoned buildings for struggling communities, according to Ben Breit, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff
The program and the facility are known as the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center, commonly called the sheriff's "boot camp" – repurposed in November 2013 from its original military-style training program.
The Phoenix project marks the first time the boot camp program is partnering with the South Suburban Land Bank and Development Authority, a public authority that acquires title to distressed properties in need of redevelopment, according to Russell Rydin, the land bank's executive director.
The property in Phoenix "was foreclosed through
, which made it easy for the South Suburban Land Bank to acquire and set for demolition," Breit said, adding that the land bank also helped in other ways, like asbestos training and "nitty gritty stuff that you normally wouldn't consider."
"The fact that the land bank has embraced this and is on board, accounting for some of those processes has really expanded the playing field," he added.
Phoenix Mayor Terry Wells said he estimates the village would have had to scrounge up $7,000 to $9,000 to pay for the same demolition project.
"We could have done it on our own, but it would've taken longer and we would've had to dig into our budget quite a bit," Wells said, adding that the village has been "aggressively taking down" as many abandoned properties as it can on its own, but could benefit from more of the program's help.
Breit said the Phoenix property, on 15209 S. Halsted, "sits on a main strip in Phoenix, which we think made it a priority."
Wells said the home has been abandoned for about three years, and while it has not drawn squatters, presented other concerns: "You have an abandoned property, property values go down. You also have problems with [the property attracting] crime."
The repurposed, demolition-focused boot camp has completed 25 projects since its inception, Breit said, including a 23-story property in Dixmoor last November, which he called "by far the largest project we've taken on."
The village of Dixmoor would have had to muster up $150,000 that it did not have to pay for the same project, said Tui Muse, assistant director of the village's planning department.
Muse said the property had attracted various squatters and lots of vandalism before the program's detainees took it down – and that the community was very grateful for their work.
"The Sheriff's Department, the workers and the way they handled themselves was very professional," he said.
Andy Dimnych, 21, said he was incarcerated in a drug possession case three years ago, then arrested on a DUI charge, leading a judge to terminate his probation and offer him a choice: a three-year prison sentence or going through the boot camp program.
Breit said the program requires six months residential detention and eight months of post-release house arrest. The eight months of house arrest can be cut short if and when an inmate shows he has found a full-time job.
Dimnych said he used to work for his father's construction company, where he expects to return to work after his release. He said he feels like he is keeping up his skills while serving communities in need:
"It helps communities," he said. "There's a lot of houses and if we take down the houses, the property values of the communities go up. It also helps us detainees get out of the facility and learn some skills about deconstruction."
Dimnych doesn't have a partner or children to support.
Jones, however, said he has a daughter he plans to support by finding work in construction or carpentry: "She's my inspiration – to get a job and stay out of jail."
Incarcerated for firearm and drug possession, as well as manufacturing and delivering drugs, Jones said he also had worked in construction before his sentence, but worried about how the program might help him find work. Now, he's more optimistic:
"When I came into the program, I was kind of down and thought it would be hard to get a job," Jones said. "Then I talked to my carpentry teacher."
The program offers construction-related classes, like carpentry, on days when the inmates aren't working, Mondays and Wednesdays for residential detainees and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for those in post-release house arrest, Dymnich and Jones said.
After he is released from the facility, Jones said he wants to take more carpentry classes so he can become licensed and join the union.
"My daughter won't have to want for anything," he said.
But Jones seemed concerned about the three days a week of free labor during house arrest interfering with finding paid work: "If you're thinking about going into construction or being a carpenter, you get hands-on experience. The bad thing is when you get out and have to get a job, it's hard because you have to do work for free instead of getting paid."
Dimnych expressed the same concern.
Breit said the house arrest phase only requires three days of work a week so that detainees can still search for full-time work on the other days.
He added that the program's priority is to get these men back into the work force, and that at least two recent alumni of the repurposed boot camp have had job interviews, but it is too early to collect data on how effectively the program helps detainees find jobs.
The Sheriff's Department abandoned the old, military-oriented boot camp on the impression that the military seemed "less interested in taking guys with this background," Breit said, adding that the department still wanted to offer inmates "who showed the potential to turn their lives around" a chance to receive some professional training.
"The sheriff got the sense that we needed to reframe this in some way," he added.
Around the same time Dart was mulling over a boot camp reboot, Cook County Sheriff's Police had been expanding their purview to help cash-strapped south and southwest suburbs, Breit said.
"The past few years, we've become more involved in suburban communities, particularly areas really hit hard by the recession," he said. "The suburbs were hit hard by the mortgage crisis and a rise in abandoned homes in the south suburbs, with most of these towns unable to address it."
For Dart, Breit said, "all of these factors sort of clicked" when he aligned the need to revamp the boot camp with the opportunity to restore these communities.
Dymnich said the program left him with one bittersweet memory:
"We took down a roof, we finished taking it down and I felt so good that I wished we would've stayed out there longer," he said. "It felt almost like I was working in real life. I used to do different projects for my step dad, I used to work just as hard, but I got paid for it."
He said he appreciated the program for reminding him how much he enjoys hard work, "because I feel like it gives me an outlook on my life and how to live my life."
Jones said the program gave him a new perspective too.
"The best thing about the boot camp program overall is a second chance," Jones said. "A lot of people make a bad decision and sometimes don't get a chance to think about it. Six months of discipline, it's hard, but it makes you stronger for the world."
Only men detained for nonviolent crimes are eligible for the boot camp program.
When asked if the sheriff's program provides similar job-training programs for women, Breit said there was "nothing quite like this in terms of restoring communities, but the sheriff is always open to any innovative idea with the capability of helping our population stay out of jail."
He added: "We have numerous programs for the women. Some are vocational, but most are meant to help them overcome trauma they've experienced on the streets. ... Also quite a few educational programs aimed to help them get their GEDs."
The program's next deconstruction project with the land bank will be on a Hazel Crest property, which Rydin said the land bank should acquire in a few weeks.
Tara Kadioglu is a freelance reporter. Copyright © 2015,
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