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CTA expands apprentice program, ‘best thing’ for ex-offenders

CTA President Forest Claypool speaks during press conference CTA Bus Facility Chicago Ill. Wednesday March 6 2013. | Andrew A.

CTA President Forest Claypool speaks during a press conference at a CTA Bus Facility in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 6, 2013 7:26PM

Mike Russell spent three years in prison for selling crack cocaine, then tried to go straight, only to have doors slammed in his face.

Thanks to the one door that opened — a CTA apprentice program for ex-offenders that pays $9.50 an hour — Russell is now cleaning rail cars at the O’Hare Airport station and doing such a good job, he caught the eye of a supervisor who offered Russell a chance to move up to the more lucrative job of part-time bus driver.

“This is the best thing that ever happened to me. If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing,” said Russell, 38.

On Wednesday, an emotional Russell joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a CTA bus garage as the mayor unveiled plans to quadruple the program and give 200 more ex-offenders the same second chance that Russell got cleaning buses and trains.

“If you want to make sure that an ex-offender does not become a repeat offender, you have to have job opportunities for them to prove themselves,” the mayor said.

Noting that Russell studied to get his commercial driver’s license, Emanuel said, “I don’t want to lose [sight] of what it means to his three kids when they look at their father today and the choices he has made because that’s another generation that will take…the right road: Hard work, knowing the difference between right and wrong, the notions of being disciplined and focused.”

Russell started to cry as he talked about what it means to belatedly earn the respect of his three kids, ages 9, 12 and 16.

“They treat me different. It’s just different. . . . They have a father now. Before, I really wasn’t a parent,” he said.

“I worked my butt off. . . . I went to other places trying to get a job, but it was my background. If you’ve been incarcerated, they really don’t like that.”

The CTA currently has 65 ex-offenders working “on the rail side” for up to nine months, according to agency spokesman Brian Steele.

The 200 additional former criminals will be put to work for up to one year on both the bus and rail systems in positions with no “direct customer interaction,” he said.

“It’s interior and exterior cleaning of trains and buses, cleaning and basic maintenance of rail car shops and bus garages and also cleaning of rail yards, where we store the trains,” Steele said Wednesday.

Steele insisted that the decision to keep ex-offenders away from passengers has nothing to do with rider safety. He noted that customer service being put to the test on the Wells Street Bridge project is “already handled” by members of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union.

“It’s putting them where the need is. Having extra staff to clean rail cars and buses is definitely a benefit for customers. Cleaner vehicles make for a better commuting experience,” he said.

To qualify as a CTA apprentice, ex-offenders must pass background checks. Candidates are eligible if they have been convicted of “non-sexual, non-violent and non-domestic violence” related criminal offenses, officials said.

Ex-offenders interested in becoming CTA apprentices can apply through two agencies: West Side Health Authority or Teamwork Englewood. Applicants will then undergo “job-readiness instruction” by one of eight non-profits partnered with the CTA.

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