Prisoners get tattoos, leave gangs for work, a better life

Wheaton, Illinois (AP) – Under threat of beating or death, Eric Eck promised at the age of 13 to follow the first rule of Latin kings: “Once a king, always a king.” Tattoos that cover his entire body express his loyalty to one of the largest groups in the United States

Now the 36-year-old longtime Latin king is trying his best to leave. He seeks to clean up his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang cessation and employment program he and 11 other inmates signed up for in a prison in the Chicago area.

gained exclusive access for two days to the first 12 inmates who participated in the program, which is funded mainly from private funds in the DuPage County Jail, and to their cell. For their safety, they are isolated from 500 other prison inmates, half of whom are gangs.

Ek, a prisoner on charges of theft, was nicknamed “Hollywood” on the street for his bravado. But the nightmares kept him awake for days before he recently went to the new wing of the prison to have his tattoos removed.

“This life is all I ever knew,” Eck said of suffering because of his decision to ruin tattoos that have been central to his face for 20 years. “But it’s for the better.”

He added: “I feel that the changes have officially begun.”

One of the goals is to get prisoners to work in horticulture, welding and other fields they study, said civilian director and program chief architect Michael Berry. He said there is growing interest among businesses struggling to address the labor shortage caused by COVID-19.

Vacancy training has been available before, but a focus on gang and tattooing has been added this year.

“Earlier, I asked the business to hire these guys. Now they say, “As long as they come to work, we don’t care what they did,” said Berry, a longtime business owner and CEO of JUST of DuPage, a non-profit organization founded by a Roman Catholic nun for development. prisoner return programs.

Prisoners are not promised work or a reduced sentence. But when they graduate, they will receive help in finding work and relocating from their groups. A letter from the sheriff advertises their participation.

To receive a diploma, participants must remove gang tattoos or cover with other tattoos. This is proof, said DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick, that they are serious about leaving their former lives.

“It’s a point of no return,” he said. “It’s a commitment to them – and to us that we don’t waste time.”

The first tattoo that Ec made was on his arm with the initials of the Latin kings. Prison tattoo artist Tom Bigley painted a picture of a deer over it during a four-hour session in February. Coverage of all Eco gang tattoos will take months.

The roaring lion – a favorite symbol of Latin kings – has recently been transformed into a roaring bear. Ek should be careful when choosing animals that are not symbols of other gangs. The rabbit, he said, came out. It is a symbol of competitor Latin Kings Two Six Nation.

Bagley and his wife Megan Bigley from a suburban electric tattoo parlor took the opportunity to show off their skills. Prisoners painted a mural on the wall in the prison tattoo studio on three chairs. It reads, “Hope, Purpose, and Redemption.”

The day before, Tom Bagley turned the Satan Disciples tattoo on Jaime Marines ’forearm from a Christian cross sculpted from rifles into a vulture image.

Nearby, Migen Bagley removed tattoos on the arms of 27-year-old Latin Count leader Gilbert Rias, possessing a pen-like device to scrape the outer skin and then injecting saline. This pushes the ink into the scab, which peels off in a matter of weeks.

“They cry a lot,” she said, but not in pain. “These tattoos were their face. (Give up on them) is very emotional. ”

The one she removed from Rias ’hand was the reverse“ D, ”a symbol of contempt for Marines’ gang.

They talked amicably, comparing the tattoo they had done to them that day.

“If they saw each other on the street,” Berry said, “they would try to kill each other.”

Wealthy DuPage County is not considered a hotbed of gangs. Mendrick, who was elected sheriff as a Republican, argues that violent crimes in his county are often committed by gangs from Chicago, in neighboring Cook County.

Mendrick is convinced that the program, funded in part by church donations, will help reduce crime.

“I am a religious person,” he said. “I feel that I am responding to my vocation.” As a motivation Berry also cites religion.

The program also offers Bible classes, anger management and decision making. And also advises drug addicts.

After his release, Eck wants to have a business. He believes he can apply the leadership skills honed in his group.

He stupidly talks about the benefits of gangster life.

“Being a gang member in my area was better than being president of the United States,” he said. “I wanted cars, women … power, respect.”

The murder of his best friend two months before Eck was jailed a year ago has begun to change his mind. It was an internal blow to the Latin king, who wanted his friend’s top spot in the gang hierarchy, Ec said.

“He got 16 bullets, four in the face. It seemed like enough, ”Eck said, adding that the blame for harming others also began to put pressure on him.

Other participants also cited injuries from years of gang violence as motivation for desire. Chicago police say most of the nearly 800 murders in the city last year, the most in a quarter of a century, have been linked to gangs.

In another tattoo session, Tom Bagley applied a new image to a scar on Marines ’chest from the moment he was shot last year at a traffic light.

The tattoo is a clock set at 6:20 a.m. to commemorate the date of his father’s death from a heroin overdose on June 20, 2016. Marines pauses when he mentions his father.

The 21-year-old knows he is endangering himself by rejecting his gang.

“I don’t want to do that in 50 years. … I know a lot of (adults) still in this life. And it just eats them, ”he said.

Ek believes that Berry, whom he describes as a father, persuaded him to join the program.

“I never came up to me and said there was another way to live,” he said.

Eck wants to create a meaningful life. Another criminal record, he said, could sentence him to life in prison.

There are already signs of its transformation.

Recently in the afternoon he was surprised to learn what pronoun he uses to speak of Latin kings.

“I say ‘they’, not ‘we,'” he said, looking at Berry, who was sitting next to him, laughing.

He also stopped answering the name of his street. When several inmates recently approached him, he bristled.

“My name is Eric,” he snapped. “Hollywood? … I don’t know who you’re talking about. “

Struggling to invent himself, he says he doesn’t want to have anything to do with his gang personality.

“I want to be able to wake up and never see this person again.”

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