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Obama should meet the ‘Warden’

Richard English

Richard English

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:42AM

When President Obama hits town on Friday, he’ll be busy, I know. But if he has a few minutes to spare, there’s a man I wish he’d meet.

Richard English is his name, though most people still call him “Warden.”

“That’s the warden there . . . The tough guys see him still and back up a couple of steps!” said Maurice Perkins, as English arrived at the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation, a halfway house, at 45th & Michigan Tuesday morning.

English is nobody’s liberal.

More cop than caseworker, he carries himself with the authority of someone disciplined by the military and the boxing ring. At 75, he’s in better shape than guys 30 years younger.

I first met English back when he was the warden of Division One, the toughest cellblock at Cook County jail. It was the late 1970s. Gangs like the Disciples and the El Rukns were shooting up the city.

Over the years we occasionally would run into each other, and our conversation invariably would turn to gangs and violence.

So who better to turn to as the president comes to town to tackle a problem that has roots going back generations?

“You know, I have mixed feelings,” English said about the president’s visit. “The city needs help . . . don’t need a president to come to town and just talk.”

Around us, a small group of just-released offenders gather. Most are just out of Sheridan Correctional Center and its drug-treatment program.

There’s 42-year-old Gregory Smith, a former Traveling Vice Lord and recovering heroin addict. He’s been shot seven times.

Will it help that the president is coming home, I ask?

“I would have thought him being elected would have helped,” he says. “But it hasn’t.”

Jobs, he says, barely exist in these neighborhoods.

Like Smith, Noel Borrero is 42, came up through a gang (the Maniac Latin Disciples) and is in drug recovery.

When he was younger, “There was one gun to 20 guys. Now you’ve got two guns to one guy. More guns than bodies.”

English has come to believe in the anti-violence organization CeaseFire, which hires older ex-cons. It does two critical things, he argues. It provides jobs. And it interrupts a would-be shooter from killing another victim.

“These shooters are killing anybody, they have no sense of value, don’t care about anyone. And usually the only people who reach ’em are ex-offenders, people they looked up to when they were young and had some kind of reputation,” he said.

There is no neat formula, English knows. Everything is required in this violence emergency: churches, schools, police, employment opportunity. And family.

“You got a dad?” English asks 22-year-old Dwayne Black, released last month from prison.

“No, sir,” he tells the Warden. “My father was locked up. I’ve seen him once.”

English asks him where he’s headed.

“I’ve gotta get to school, sir,” the young man replies.

The Warden hands him a couple of dollars, thanks him for speaking to him so respectfully, and sends him on his way.

A small moment, maybe.

But you never know.

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