Marlon Chamberlain

Marlon Chamberlain

“I was born and raised in Chicago, grew up on the South Side. In 1995 or 1996, I moved to Clinton, Iowa, and that’s where I started getting in trouble. I was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.”

“Immediately when they put the handcuffs on me, I was ready to let go of this lifestyle. By me being arrested, it was like I had been freed from something I wanted to leave anyway.”

“So when I went into the system on my last prison sentence, I went in with this mindset that I wasn’t coming out the same. I started engaging in educational programs, reading books, doing whatever I could to better myself.”

“I spent all my time preparing myself for my release. It wasn’t because of the institution, it was because I went in with that mindset.”

“I lost a lot of family members while I was incarcerated, including my mother. After that I changed my exit location from Iowa to Chicago, because the family I did still have, I wanted to be close to them.”

“In 2010, a federal law passed called the Fair Sentencing Act, which basically changed the ratio between crack and cocaine. Because of that law, my sentence was reduced from 20 to 14 years. I noticed the atmosphere of the institution where I was being held changed. There was a feeling a hope and excitement.”

“Once I was released, I was sent to a federal halfway house. I had a lot of family support, which helped me make adjustments through the whole first year.”

“But I was around a lot of people in that program who didn’t have family support. I saw a lot of joy and happiness go to sadness and frustration because they couldn’t find a place to live, couldn’t find a job. They would come in excited because they’re home only to become frustrated because they couldn’t find a way to move forward.”

“So the other thing the Fair Sentencing Act did was it introduced me to policy work. I had never paid attention to anything policy related prior to this. After release I became a community organizer with a number of groups around Chicago. I’m now the executive director of my own organization called the Illinois Coalition to End Permanent Punishments.”

“We did a research project where we scrubbed every statute in Illinois code to identify all these collateral consequences to incarcerations. We found out people with felony convictions can’t be on the premises of a bingo game. Another statute said we can’t own a falconry bird.”

“One that became personal to me was that as a convicted felon, I couldn’t be the executor of my father’s estate when he passed a couple of years ago, even though my last conviction was over 20 years ago. We introduced a bill to change that, as long as the family member is aware of the felony conviction and says they still want that person to carry out their last wishes. That was implemented as law Jan. 1.”

“If someone comes out of the system and says, ‘I want to go back to school’ or ‘I want to go and do this,’ if you continue to tell that person ‘no,’ it’s almost like you’re forcing them to go back to what they know.”

“Where there’s shootings and crime that’s happening, we don’t like it either. I want my family to feel safe as well. There has to be accountability for people who want to live their life that way.”

“But if an individual goes into the system and then makes up their mind they want to change their life, when they come out they can’t do anything. It’s like saying, ‘Now I’m going to punish you for life, even though you’ve completed your sentence. And not just you, your family.’”

“Public safety is saying, ‘Yes. We want to hold folks accountable,’ but we also create opportunities for people to grow.”

Marlon Chamberlain
Founder, Illinois Coalition to End Permanent Punishments
Dolton, Illinois

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