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Inmates help tear down abandoned building in new sheriff’s program

Updated: December 20, 2013 7:54PM



Nearly a dozen Cook County inmates weren’t sitting in jail Friday morning. They were giving back — tearing down a long-abandoned burned out house in Ford Heights.

It was the first of five such eye-sore buildings in the southern suburb they will be helping demolish in over the next few weeks.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has a goal of using inmates to help tear down a total of 100 blighted properties in Cook County in the next year via a new program, the Neighborhood Restoration Initiative.

The initiative, which he unveiled at a press conference Friday as detainees worked nearby in Ford Heights, is open to inmates sentenced to the sheriff’s offices’ boot camp program. In the first phase of the 12-month program, detainees live, work and attend classes in a boot-camp setting.

In the second eight-month phase they live at home, but are on electronic monitoring and must check in with staff about employment or education efforts and take drug tests.

Participants who aren’t working or in school must participate three days a week in various work details, such as this new initiative, according to Dart’s office. More than 100 detainees have participated in the boot camp work programs to help local communities.

Dart said he is paying for the Neighborhood Restoration Initiative out of existing funds and using existing equipment from the Sheriff’s Office. He said it brings no added cost to taxpayers.

“We are going around using our resources and using detainee and inmate labor for free to destroy these buildings to bring them down, and...we’re teaching a skill to the inmates where they now are going to learn something that they can translate when they get out of here,” Dart said. “...For the neighbors, the neighborhood, huge benefits.”

He noted Ford Heights has among the highest foreclosure rates in the county.

“For the detainees, we talk to them and we say, ‘Listen, you’ve done some bad things that got you here. This is a way of trying to turn things around. It’s a part of redemption,’” Dart said. “Some of them get it. Some of them don’t.”

Most of the inmates in the program, are in jail for drug cases, he said.

“It’s a second chance,” said 22-year-old Jarrell Guerin, a detainee participant, sentenced on cocaine charges. He said the program has helped teach him how to be more responsible and more respectful of the community.

Arnold Dennis, 22 of Chicago, echoed that sentiment of the boot camp program, now called the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center.

“It’s another chance at life for me,” said Dennis, who was sentenced on a weapons charge. “It’s not just for me. I’m providing my time to help out other people.”

Dart said a challenge in achieving his goal of 100 houses is working through the red tape with various municipalities to get the demolition work started. But it’s a challenge he’s focused on meeting.

“We’re going anywhere in the county of Cook,” he said. “We’re going to be there.”

Email: fknowles@suntimes.com



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