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State sponsors expo to help female ex-offenders

When Stephanie Cooper was released last June after a year in state prison, she was euphoric over her new freedom.

Pretty quickly, though, the realities of the outside world came rushing back.

“You’re not paying bills in prison. There’s no light bill, no gas bill — none of that stuff,” said Cooper, who said her 2012 conviction was rooted in drug addiction. “So when reality sets in, when you get back in the free world, if you don’t have your mind set on changing, you’re not going to change.”

On Thursday, Cooper, along with about 600 other women who have served time, attended the Summit of Hope at Kennedy King College in Englewood.

The goal of the expo, a women-only event in honor of Mother’s Day, was connecting recently released prisoners with services and community groups that can ease their transition.

Finding a job, feeding a family and paying rent can be even harder for ex-cons, corrections officials said. And those who don’t succeed on the outside could be tempted to commit more crimes.

About 28 percent of women return to prison after their release, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, which co-hosted the event with Illinois Department of Public Health. Roughly 47 percent of men wind up behind bars again.

“Once the door slams in their face, they go back to the old ways — in the streets, selling drugs, panhandling and prostitution,” Cooper said. It’s a fate she wants to avoid.

Having a good support group is key, said Dawn Layne-Kindred of the Men And Women in Prison Ministries, which had a booth at the event.