Kiwand Brown doesn’t have a brother. But while he was locked up in the Cook County Jail for one of the dumbest things he’s ever done, he met a man who one day would be like one to him.
That day, Artimmeo Williamson talked with Brown and other young detainees about steering their lives away from crime. Before he left, Williamson, a 37-year-old outreach worker for a West Side anti-violence program, handed Brown his business card. Give me a shout when you get out, he told him.
On June 18, Brown was put on probation, and he went home after spending 263 days in jail.
He looked for the business card Williamson gave him but couldn’t find it. And he couldn’t remember the name of that guy who had offered to help him.
Well, he thought, I’m sure I’ll be fine anyway.
But June turned into July, and Brown hadn’t found work yet. He was mostly just existing. Watching TV. Filling out job applications. He tried to find a job, but nothing was clicking for him.
Then, by chance, he reconnected with Williamson — and found his mentor. His new older brother.
Brown had gone to see his grandmother singing with her church group at a West Side park, and Williamson was there.
Williamson remembers thinking, “Wow, he’s out.”
They embraced, and Williamson told Brown: “Everything that I told you to do when you get out, I’m here to help you.”
“The stars lined up perfectly,” according to Williamson, an ex-offender himself.
The odds are stacked against Brown. Nearly half of the people who are placed on probation in Cook County wind up returning to jail within three years of completing their sentences.
But Brown has more going for him than many do. His grandparents and his mother are behind him. He wants desperately to make it. And he has Williamson in his corner.
Hope. Perseverance. Support. Luck.
These are the things it takes for someone to leave jail and never go back.
So far, Kiwand Brown has all four going for him.
Brown is 20 but seems older. He has a beard and dreadlocks that drape over his shoulders. He has a thick, muscular build and still looks like a linebacker, the position he played at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School.
About a year and a half ago, his buddy Jelani Hines enlisted him in a boneheaded scheme.
Hines called Brown about a “lick” — a robbery — he said they could do. He told Brown he’d end up with a “stack” of cash. Brown said he was reluctant, but he had parking tickets he needed to pay off.
So he agreed. The morning of Aug. 15, 2017, Brown waited for Hines’ girlfriend to walk to her car. She was carrying a purse containing $11,000, which she told the police she got from her parents to attend college.
Brown grabbed her, snatched her pink purse and ran. He jumped fences and hid out. After 15 minutes, he met up with Hines and handed over the loot. Brown said he got $1,000 of the stolen cash.
But soon the police came. The cops questioned Brown and Hines, both 19 at the time, and they confessed.
Each spent about eight months in jail before pleading guilty. Cook County Circuit Judge William Raines sentenced them to two years of probation and ordered them to repay their victim $5,500 each in monthly installments of $230.
According to Brown, he’s been paying off that debt ever since.
In jail, Brown and Hines took part in Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s S.A.V.E. program — the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort.
Sheriff’s staffers work with young men like them to help them learn to recognize why they react to situations violently. And they show them ways to slow down their decisions so they can react differently.
About 40 male inmates at a time are enrolled in the program. About a third of them don’t make it through. They get expelled for showing disrespect to the staff, fighting or other jail violations.
The program connects its successful participants to programs on the outside — like the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, whose office is on the West Side in Austin.
One day in May, Brown was in his tan, extra-large jail uniform, sitting in a beige, cinder-block interview room opposite Cara Smith, the sheriff’s policy director. Brown was counting down the days until he expected to be sentenced to probation. And he wasn’t happy about the prospect of going back to Austin, where he lives.
“There’s trash everywhere,” Brown said. “It’s dirty. People just throw stuff on people’s lawns. There’s no functions for kids. We’re not communicating with each other. We’re not being a community.”
His No. 1 goal was: get a job. Smith asked what he’d tell a prospective employer.
“You are applying for a moving company, and the interviewer says, ‘Anything you can tell me about your background?’ How are you going to answer that?” she asked him.
“It’s best to be honest right then and there,” Brown answered. “If you lie, you’re out the door because you know they’re going to do a background check.”
On another day in jail, Brown said he let his family down because they expected he was going straight to college.
But he said he learned self-discipline in jail and that it would help him succeed on the outside, in a job or in school.
“Get up at 7 in the morning, wash your face, brush your teeth, put your uniform on, and go talk about life skills, do mock interviews, all of that. I want to say my experience in jail wasn’t a total waste,” he said, adding, “I used to sleep until 2 or 3 in the afternoon.”
Staying off the streets
On June 18, carrying a plastic bag full of his belongings, Kiwand Brown walked out of jail.
Asked that day what the judge had told him hours earlier at his sentencing, he smiled and said: “He say he gave me a second chance — and don’t mess it up, basically. And he said: Thank my lawyer. He said a lot. Some of it wasn’t too friendly. It was, like, you’re free, you gotta make better choices.’ ”
As he waited for his grandmother to pick him up, Brown joked that his first day of freedom didn’t begin particularly auspiciously: “Seems like it started raining when I got out.”
The judge had warned Brown to keep up the payments to his victim, or he’d be sent straight to prison.
His lawyer Jerry Kurz wasn’t worried about that: “Kiwand had a very good attitude since it first happened. He never made excuses. He’s never had a run-in before, except traffic. I was impressed, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, since 1980.”
Brown returned to his mom’s home on a busy street in Austin where, at night, he often can hear gunfire not very far away.
But his mother’s home was an oasis, spick-and-span, with modern furniture.
One afternoon in early July, Brown sat in their back yard contemplating the future. He was thinking about a welding program on the North Side, following in the footsteps of someone he knows — another ex-offender — who went through the program and was pulling in $20 an hour.
“I might try to do a temp agency for the time being so I have some kind of income coming in while I do the program,” he said.
Brown said he was continuing to “holler” at old friends on the street, but he wouldn’t venture outside “without a destination or a mission or something to accomplish.
“ ‘Cause the streets ain’t going nowhere,” he said. “I be in the house filling out job interviews.”
Brown also talked of his plans to get in shape for college football some day.
“I have to be twice as hard-working as the next 10 or 11 people,” he said. “I gotta get a gym, work out — cardio, legs, arms, all of that.”
But he said he had to be careful, too. If he decided to go for a run on the street, say, he wouldn’t put his hood up over his head. And he’d pin up his dreadlocks under a hat.
He didn’t want gangs — or the police — to think he was a gang member, which he said he’s never been.
Brown’s grandma Pat Carter is one of his biggest fans. She wears a blue T-shirt that says “TEAM Kiwand.”
But she’s no pushover.
“I think he could be doing a little bit more,” she said in late July.
She wasn’t thrilled he kept his cell phone on a charger upstairs while he was cooking or watching TV downstairs.
“I have a hard time reaching him,” she complained.
“He never had to put a big effort into anything. He needs to put his grown-man underwear on.”
A new start
After Brown reconnected with Williamson, he started working part-time jobs. The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago would pick him up in a van and take him to the work sites.
He worked at Koch Foods in Franklin Park, where he put cut-up chickens in containers — assembly-line work where he had to had wear goggles, a hairnet and coveralls to keep the mess off of himself and made $11.25 an hour.
He also worked for UPS, scanning and loading packages during the wee hours.
Not every company gives ex-offenders a chance, but Dan McMacklin, the public relations director for UPS, said, “We’ll give you a shot.”
“The first thing is a work ethic,” McMacklin said. “Another thing is being prompt. The last thing is a desire to serve others.”
Brown hustled whatever hours he could get.
Meantime, he volunteered with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. One day in late August, he helped set up for a festival on an empty lot at Van Buren and Springfield on the West Side. Dozens of squealing kids were jumping in an inflatable bounce house, while adults chatted near a barbecue grill and a deejay played Aretha Franklin.
Brown, who learned chess in jail, was monitoring a gigantic chessboard, teaching kids things like how to tell a pawn from a rook.
Men in yellow “Security” vests from the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago kept an eye on things.
Williamson nodded toward Brown and said his young protégé was managing to stay away from the “distractions in the neighborhoods.
“He’s really trying to keep busy, you know, keep himself busy so he won’t have to resort back to that or lose focus.”
‘They all want help’
Nearly 200 people participate in the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago’s programs in Austin, West Garfield Park and Back of the Yards.
Chris Patterson — who grew up in the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project on the Near North Side and served a stretch in prison — is the program manager. He knows the odds of “relapse” for ex-offenders are high. That’s why he wants his outreach workers to be available to the people they mentor day or night.
“Contrary to popular belief, they all want help,” Patterson said. “As a good outreach worker, I kind of want to be the nagging brother or father figure or mother figure.”
Patterson thinks businesses also need to do their part. Few, he said, are welcoming to ex-offenders.
“Yeah, there are some organizations and companies who evolved and changed with the times, but it is discouraging,” he said.
But the success stories make it worthwhile for him. Like the 15-year-old boy who got shot and lost a kidney. Less than a year later, he got shot again.
“He caught a gun case, was on house arrest,” Patterson said. “Outreach staff pounded and pounded that relationship. He had a newborn baby. We brought diapers, baby formula. We had to show we cared on another level.
“He’s OK now. If this guy can keep breathing, he’s going to be all right, you know?”
Through the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Brown is now in READI Chicago, a two-year program that puts former inmates in “transitional jobs.” They also get behavioral therapy and life coaching. The Heartland Alliance and Institute for Nonviolence Chicago are partners in READI, which uses analytics developed by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
A plan for the future
Through READI, Brown is working on a crew that picks up garbage strewn on the streets and vacant lots of the city. He said he makes $300 to $400 a week.
“Right now, I’m at stage one. You can’t go straight to the top. I really don’t know what the future holds, but I am trying for greatness.”
In three years, Brown wants to have his debts paid off and to be enrolled in a community college. He’d like to get back into football, too.
It’s a smart plan, according to Williamson. And he plans to keep helping him. “If he says he wants to go to college, I’m gonna make sure he gets there.”
Brown knows he means it. The way he sees things, it wasn’t luck that brought them together in that park after he lost the business card Williamson gave him in jail. It was “divine intervention,” he said.
And he knows how much it’s helping him to have Williamson in his corner.
Said Brown: “He’s like the big brother I never had.”