November 2, 2022

Busting down barriers to freedom after incarceration

The struggle for freedom extends far beyond incarceration. 
“It’s hard, but it’s not hopeless.” – Melvin Farely

Melvin Farley was released from Menard Correctional Center in July 2021 through executive clemency after spending more than 30 years in prison. Melvin’s homecoming was a joyous day. IPP drove down to Menard to pick up an eager and excited Melvin, ready for a second shot at life. 

Like many who serve long sentences, Melvin’s connection to the community outside of prison had dwindled over the years. Maintaining strong relationships with loved ones while in prison is challenging. There are a number of barriers which block easy access to communication with the outside world. 

Additionally, and perhaps less recognized, is the grief that comes with incarceration and the emotional toll of maintaining relationships with those on the outside. For these reasons, Melvin reentered what became a foreign world, returning to very little of what he had left behind many years ago. 

IPP found Melvin temporary housing at a facility that required residents to provide their own food, bedding and toiletries — a common place expectation of the limited re-entry housing centers available to returning citizens. At 51, the entirety of Melvin’s possessions, purchased with IPP reentry funds on the drive from prison to his new housing placement, could be counted on a single hand. 

Life ahead seemed daunting, as it would for anyone in Melvin’s position. For people who haven’t experienced incarceration — and even for people who have — their conception of freedom begins when incarceration ends. But the struggle for freedom extends far beyond incarceration and barriers after release are plentiful. 

Melvin’s story is one of  freedom and redemption. It’s a testament to his perseverance in the face of extreme adversity. And it’s possible in no small part thanks to the consistent and hands-on support of loving volunteer Steve Greska. 

IPP sat down with Melvin and Steve to talk about their journey together, the landmine that is reentry and the importance of  support networks after folks are released from prison. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Melvin, prior to your release, if or when you imagined freedom, what did you think it would be like?  

M: It was a surprise to me. It was an immediate release. I didn't know I was going home until the day of my release, but my hopes were that the Illinois Prison Project would get me into a halfway house. My idea of a halfway house was this fabulous house in some suburban neighborhood where prisoners were released to. And when I got out, I saw that many halfway houses were located where there was lots of violence going on. I was disappointed. 

I had no image of the world because I had not been in the world for over 33 years. I really only knew what I saw on TV. When I dreamed about it, it was more like a movie image. It was totally different than when I was released from prison and I went to Chicago. But I knew I wanted to be free. Whatever freedom was offered, I wanted.

Would you describe for us what it was like the first week after you got out? What was that experience like for you?

M: I was in shock from all the fast paced things that were going on in the neighborhood and at the halfway house. While I was so happy to be free, I was overwhelmed. The city had changed so much. It's not the Chicago I remember. But I would rather be out here, with this going on, than be in there. Out here you can move around, get away from a lot of things. In there, you're stuck right there. You can't go anywhere. You have to deal with it. 

What were some initial barriers for you after your release? 

M: Documentation and IDs. I didn’t know my social security number or how important that was. I was in prison from my teen years all the way up, and I never had somebody to sit me down and tell me how important it was to remember my social security number. I couldn't get through many doors without that number or without my birth certificate. I felt like an alien. It was like I needed a green card, like I was from a foreign country or something, like I wasn't even born in America. That's how I was treated.

Steve, how did you and Melvin begin your relationship?

S: I agreed to meet Melvin one morning. I picked him up at his place and we went to Target and bought a ton. Melvin didn't have hardly any clothes, didn't have any laundry detergent, a wallet, a watch. 

There was no blueprint. I just started making a lot of phone calls to see who could help and what they could do. Melvin and I would meet often for lunch and I would tell him what I was working on and who I'm talking to, and Melvin would have this long list on a piece of paper of all the people that he had talked to and what he was working with. 

It was just amazing, everything that Melvin was doing, too. We were a team, working together on this goal. 

What would you want people to know about the reentry process? 

M: There are resources to help people just released from prison. There are more than we think there are. Organizations such as CARA and the SAFER Foundation, who helped me get a job. These resources might not necessarily come to you, you have to go out and get them. But don't be afraid to go out and knock on doors and make phone calls. Don't be discouraged by the doors closed in your face and rejection. Anything worth having, you have to work hard for. I learned that lesson. 

S:  I want people to know that working with Melvin has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done in my life. I'll be 62 in a couple of months and I've done a lot of volunteer work. But working with Melvin has been just unbelievably rewarding. He is such a hard worker. He has never been late for work or missed a day. Getting to know Melvin and working with him is a life highlight for me, for sure. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to have worked through everything that we worked through.

Melvin, what impact would you say that Steve and IPP’s buddy program have had on where you are today?

M: Steve has impacted my life more than my own father. I never got to know my father, so Steve was like a big brother to me, the big brother I never had all wrapped up in a father at the same time. So I'm so glad that the Illinois Prison Project assigned you to me, Steve.

I didn't have one thing and everytime I met this man he made sure I was all right. He made sure I was eating. He would bring me bags of food and clothes. I've never met anybody that has stuck with me from beginning to end, that never gave up on me. Steve is a great man and I hope to continue our friendship forever. I don't think this work that the Illinois Prison Project assigned us to do will ever end. He always encourages me to help others who are getting out  and experiencing the same things I am. 

If you could create a more just system for returning citizens, what would you make based on your experiences? 

S: The issue of housing is something that needs to be changed to help people coming home. When Melvin got out, he was only allowed to be in that first reentry house for 30 days. He was incarcerated under the wrong name so that record didn't help get him a birth certificate, state ID or Social Security. And all we knew is he had to be out of that house in 30 days. It was super stressful. Fall was coming — and right behind fall is, of course, winter. So, if a person could be in one location for a longer time until they get some things situated, that would be really helpful. Having that number of days hanging over our heads was hard. 

M: I would change the way the [mandatory supervised release] system works. We are released into these halfway houses and given these stipulations that are almost impossible to abide by. The conditions of some of these halfway houses put us in jeopardy of violating our release terms. 

I would also change the way they make us register for certain crimes. There’s a yearly fee to register. It's like extortion. If we don't show up, they can lock us back up for not registering. They constantly move the registration offices, too, without notifying us. My parole officer didn't even tell me I had to register when I got out. People should be clearly notified immediately upon their release. They keep information from you and don’t tell you things to set you up for failure. It's like a trap.

Melvin, what are some things that bring you joy or happiness? 

M: I like traveling around the city. Sometimes, I'll just take bus rides and I'll just wander around aimlessly and enjoy just being free. I like music, and being able to listen to all the music that I couldn’t get in prison. It's just all the things I took for granted and all the things that a lot of people take for granted. Something as simple as walking down the street and breathing a fresh breath of air. All of these things bring joy to me.

To close, is there anything you want to say to each other?

M: I would like to tell you that I love you, Steve. And I appreciate you to the fullest  and hope that we will maintain our friendship forever. I'm glad that the Illinois Prison Project selected you. I think this is some type of divine plan that God brought you into my life through the Illinois Prison Project. I think that you are a great part of my destiny.

S: I'd like to tell Melvin just how inspiring he is to me and that he made a different person. Everything we did together was as a team. He overcame so many obstacles and always kept moving forward and kept his chin up.