US Inmates Are Leaving Gangs, Striving for Better Lives

Erik Eck vowed at the age of 13 to follow the Latin Kings’ first rule: “Once a King, always a King,” or face a beating or death. His entire body is covered in tattoos that indicate his eternal loyalty to one of the country’s most powerful gangs.

The veteran Latin King enforcer, now 36, is still attempting to flee. He wants to erase his gang tattoos as part of a new gang-cessation and employment program that he and 11 other convicts signed up for at a Chicago-area jail.

Over the course of two days, the Associated Press had unique access to the first 12 convicts enrolled in the mostly privately sponsored program at the DuPage County Jail, as well as their cellblock. They’re separated from the jail’s 500 other convicts, half of whom are gang members, for their own protection.

Eck, who was arrested for burglary, gained the moniker “Hollywood” on the street because of his swagger. However, he was kept awake for days by nightmares before entering the jail’s new tattoo-removal wing.

“This is all I’ve ever known,” Eck said, describing his agony over the decision to cover up the tattoos that have been a part of his identity for the past 20 years. “However, it is for the best.”

“It seems like the transformation has officially begun,” he continued.

According to Michael Beary, the program’s civilian director and primary architect, one objective is to get the offenders employment in gardening, welding, and other professions they’re studying. Businesses rushing to overcome COVID-19-related workforce shortages are showing a lot of interest, he added.

Jobs training was previously provided, but this year’s emphasis on gangs and tattoos was added.

“I used to pleading with companies to recruit these men. “Now they say, ‘We don’t care what they did as long as they come up for work,'” said Beary, a lifelong business owner and executive director of JUST of DuPage, a charity formed by a Roman Catholic nun to provide reintegration programs for offenders.

Jobs or reduced sentences are not offered to the detainees. If they graduate, however, they are given assistance in finding jobs and relocation away from their gangs. Their cooperation is lauded in a letter from the sheriff.

Participants must have their gang tattoos erased or concealed with other tattoos in order to graduate. It’s proof, according to Sheriff James Mendrick of DuPage County, that they’re serious about leaving their former life behind.

He remarked, “It’s a point of no return.” “It’s a promise to them — and to us — that we won’t waste our time.”

Eck’s first tattoo was the Latin Kings’ initials on his arm, which he had covered. Tom Begley, a jail-sanctioned tattooist, tattooed a deer over it in a four-hour session in February. It will take months to cover all of Eck’s gang tattoos.

A roaring lion, a beloved emblem of the Latin Kings, was lately transformed into a roaring bear. Eck must choose creatures that aren’t associated with other gangs. He said that a rabbit had escaped. It’s a symbol of the rivalry between Latin Kings and Two Six Nation.

Begley and his wife, Meagan Begley, of the suburban Electric Tattoo Parlor, leaped at the opportunity to help. In the jail’s three-chaired tattoo workshop, inmates painted a painting on a wall. “Hope, Purpose, and Redemption,” it states.

Tom Begley had changed a Satan Disciples tattoo on Jaime Marinez’s forearm from a Christian cross made of weapons to the image of a vulture the day before.

Nearby, Meagen Begley used a pen-like equipment to scrape off the outer skin of 27-year-old Latin Count leader Gilberto Rios’ hands before injecting a saline solution. This causes the ink to form a scab, which will peel away over the course of many weeks.

“They’re sobbing a lot,” she remarked, but not because they’re in agony. “Tattoos have served as a form of identification for them.” “It’s incredibly difficult to give them up.”

A backward “D,” a mark of hatred for Marinez’s group, was one of the items she plucked from Rios’ palm.

The two struck into a friendly conversation, comparing tattoo work done on them that day.

“They’d attempt to murder each other if they spotted each other on the street,” Beary claimed.

The affluent DuPage County isn’t known for being a gang hub. Mendrick, a Republican who was elected sheriff, believes that gangs from nearby Cook Area cause violent crime in his county.

Mendrick is certain that the initiative, which is partially sponsored by church contributions, will help to curb crime.

He declared, “I am a religious guy.” “I believe I am responding to my calling.” Beary also acknowledges religion as a source of inspiration.

The curriculum also includes Bible, anger management, and decision-making training. It also offers drug-addicted convicts therapy.

Eck wants to start his own business after he is set free. He feels he can use his gang’s leadership skills.

He’s no slouch when it comes to the pleasures of gang life.

“It was better to be a gang member in my area than to be President of the United States,” he remarked. “I wanted the vehicles, the women, the power, and the respect,” says the narrator.

Eck’s viewpoint began to shift after the murder of his best buddy two months before he was sentenced a year ago. According to Eck, the assassination was carried out by a Latin King who sought his friend’s greater position in the gang hierarchy.

“He was hit by 16 bullets, four of which hit him in the face. “It was like, ‘Enough is enough,'” Eck said, adding that remorse about hurting others began to weigh on him as well.

Others mentioned trauma from years of gang violence as a reason for wanting to leave. The majority of the roughly 800 killings in Chicago last year, the highest in a quarter-century, were gang-related, according to police.

Tom Begley drew a new artwork over a scar on Marinez’s chest from when he was shot at a stoplight last year during another tattoo session.

The tattoo depicts a clock with the time set at 6:20, commemorating his father’s death from a heroin overdose on June 20, 2016. When Marinez mentions his father, he becomes silent.

By rejecting his gang, the 21-year-old is placing himself in danger.

“I don’t want to continue doing this in another 50 years.” I know a number of (adults) who are still alive. And it’s basically devouring them,” he explained.

Eck attributes his decision to join the program to Beary, whom he regards as a father figure.

“No one has ever approached me and said there is another way to life,” he claimed.

Eck want to live a life that is meaningful. He warned that one more criminal conviction may land him in prison for the rest of his life.

There are already hints that he is changing.

When he recognized what pronoun he was using to talk about the Latin Kings on a recent afternoon, he seemed shocked.

“I’m saying ‘them,’ not ‘we,'” he clarified, grinning at Beary who sat close.

He has also ceased using his street name. He reacted angrily when numerous convicts addressed him by it recently.

He yelled, “My name is Erik.” “Hollywood? … I’m not sure who you’re referring to.”

He says he doesn’t want anything to do with his gang reputation as he tries to reinvent himself.

“I’d like to be able to wake up one day and not see that person.”

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