Program is ‘one stop shop’ for navigating life after prison

The Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative connects returning citizens to whatever they need, from completing parole mandates to finding health care and a job. Leaders say they’ve had a successful first year, but need to grow.

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Oscar Cayetano, a 23-year-old father of three who was released from prison at the beginning of this year and has had help getting back on his feet through the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative, stands in Garfield Park on the West Side.

Oscar Cayetano, a 23-year-old father of three, was released from prison at the beginning of this year and has had help getting back on his feet through the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Oscar Cayetano left prison in January with little to his name beyond a court order to complete some classes on mental health and job readiness.

Cayetano, 23, did have a place to stay. What he didn’t have was health care, or a job, and even a form of ID he could show a potential employer.

It’s like that for many getting out of prison — and it’s why many end up going back.

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But when the Humboldt Park native returned to Chicago this year, after serving time at a prison in Kansas for violent crimes, he was directed by a parole officer to the Safer Foundation in Belmont Cragin.

The foundation has helped people getting out since the early ’70s. But now it’s also become the lead organization of the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative, a network of social services providers that aim to make sure returning citizens have everything needed to successfully navigate life after prison.

The network includes providers with different specialties, from Get to Work, which offers transportation services, to Heartland Alliance Health, which offers primary and dental care. By working together, the providers can make sure that none of their help is wasted. If one group finds someone a job, for instance, another group can make sure they have a way to get there.

When he first visited Safer, “I was just thinking I was going to go over there to get my anger management and mental health classes,” Cayetano said.

“But they were asking me if I needed help finding a job, if I wanted help getting food stamps, getting a medical card.”

Within a month, Cayetano was working at a Northwest Side restaurant. He’s staying with his mom in West Garfield Park for now, but is saving up to eventually do something his three kids can be proud of.

“I’m trying to get my life together,” he said. “I’m trying to make my mama happy, I want my kids to know I’m good.”

Oscar Cayetano, a 23-year-old father of three who was released from prison at the beginning of this year and has had help getting back on his feet through the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative, sits in Garfield Park on the West Side.

Oscar Cayetano, a 23-year-old father of three who was released from prison at the beginning of this year and has had help getting back on his feet through the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative, sits in Garfield Park on the West Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cayetano, who spent 42 months in prison for charges including aggravated battery, looks well on his way to developing a positive life after prison, but that isn’t the norm.

In Illinois, around 40% of people leaving prison wind up back inside within three years, according to a 2019 study by the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

Often, a lack of basic support is to blame, with trouble finding housing the main reason for that high rate, according to the study. Other factors include lack of access to health care or a job. Affecting all of that can be the difficulty in getting a government-issued ID card.

“When you get out of prison, you’re trying to rebuild your life and to do that there are 15 areas you need to figure out,” said Safer CEO Victor Dickson. “It can seem impossible.”

That’s why Safer and the other organizations formed the network in 2020.

At the time, they were motivated by the high numbers of prisoners being released during the pandemic because they had been deemed low- and medium-risk.

Safer Foundation CEO Victor Dickson speaks at event celebrating the one year anniversary of the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative held at a Safer office on the West Side.

Safer Foundation CEO Victor Dickson speaks at an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative held at a Safer office on the West Side.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The group formalized that effort as the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative in 2022.

In April, to mark their first official year, members and local elected officials celebrated at a Safer office near Polk Street and Kedzie Avenue in Homan Square.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford championed the network’s success in helping those “impacted by a system that’s insistent on holding people back from the American dream.”

Since 2020, the network has helped 2,300 people.

Many find the network by coming to Safer. They are directed to a Safer office or can call Safer’s hotline, (773) 265-0423. The Illinois Department of Corrections also allows Safer to reach out to people in prison 90 days ahead of release.

Key to that success, Ford said, are the reentry navigators, who provide one-on-one guidance for those coming out.

“You have to have somebody that understands your struggle, that’s going to fight for you,” Ford said.

Angelica Irigoyen is a reentry navigator who helps returning citizens connect with what they need to successfully navigate life after release from prison.

Angelica Irigoyen is a reentry navigator who helps returning citizens connect with what they need to successfully navigate life after release from prison. Irigoyen, 38, is one of four reentry navigators who work out of the Safer Foundation office in Belmont Cragin.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For Cayetano, that person was Angelica Irigoyen, one of four navigators at the Belmont Cragin office, near Grand and Narragansett avenues. Each works with about 30 returning citizens at a time.

Irigoyen, who now manages the office’s reentry navigation program, said the job mainly consists of telling people that help is actually out there.

“A lot of people don’t know that services are available,” said Irigoyen, 38.

“They don’t think they deserve this and that comes from society putting this on them,” she added. “We’re here to let them know that once they come out, they’re no longer a number. They deserve that second chance because we’ve all committed mistakes.”

Irigoyen and Cayetano check in with each other every few weeks.

He’s been busing tables at the Old Irving Park restaurant for about four months and is deciding whether to use the earning for college or barber school, though he’s leaning towards the latter.

He began cutting hair in prison and enjoys the satisfied look customers give him when reviewing the cut in the mirror.

Someday, he hopes to see that same look in the eyes of his children — once he’s reached a position they can be proud of.

“I was always a ‘Don’t listen to people, don’t follow the rules kind of guy,’” he said. “I had to grow up. I had to get my stuff together.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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