Prisoners leave gangs, undress dads for work, a better life

WHITON, IL. – Under penalty of beating or death, Eric Eck promised at the age of 13 to adhere to the first rule of Latin kings: “Once a king, always a king.” Tattoos that cover his entire body express his loyalty forever to one of the biggest gangs in the United States

Now 36, the longtime Latin American king is still trying to leave. He seeks to erase his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang cessation and job program for which he and 11 other inmates have registered at a Chicago prison.

The Associated Press has exclusive access for two days to the first 12 inmates, enrolled in a largely privately funded program at DuPage County Jail, and to their cell block. For their safety, they have been isolated from the other 500 inmates, half of whom are in gangs.

Eck, jailed on burglary charges, earned the nickname “Hollywood” on the street for his impudence. But nightmares woke him up for days before he recently entered the new wing of the tattoo removal prison.


“This life is everything I’ve ever known,” Eck said of his agonizing decision to depersonalize tattoos that have been central to his identity for 20 years. “But it’s for the better.”

He added: “I feel that the change has officially begun.”

One of the goals is to find prisoners jobs in gardening, welding and other fields they study, said Michael Berry, the civilian director and chief architect of the program. He said there was a growing interest among companies struggling to cope with labor shortages caused by COVID-19.

Job training was available before, but the focus on the band and the tattoo was added this year.

“I asked the companies to hire these people. Now they say, “While they show up for work, we don’t care what they do,” said Berry, a longtime business owner and CEO of JUST of DuPage, a non-profit organization founded by a Roman Catholic nun to develop re-entry programs.


Prisoners are not promised jobs or reduced sentences. But if they graduate, they get help finding work and moving away from their gangs. A letter from the sheriff advertised their participation.

To graduate, participants must remove the gang’s tattoos or cover them with other tattoos. That’s proof, DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick said, that they are seriously trying to abandon their old lives.

“This is a point of no return,” he said. “It’s a commitment to themselves – and to us, that we’re not wasting our time.”

The first tattoo Eck wore was on his arm with the initials of the Latin kings. Prison-sanctioned tattoo artist Tom Begley painted a deer on it in a four-hour session in February. It will take months to cover all the tattoos of the Ek gang.

A roaring lion – a favorite symbol of Latin kings – has recently been turned into a roaring bear. Eck must be careful to choose animals that are not symbols of other gangs. Rabbit, he said, was outside. It is a symbol of the rival Latin Kings Two Six Nation.


Begley and his wife, Megan Begley, of the suburban electric tattoo parlor, took the opportunity to share their skills. The inmates painted a mural on a wall in the tattoo parlor with three chairs in the prison. It says, “Hope, purpose, and redemption.”

The day before, Tom Begley transformed the Satan Disciples tattoo on Jaime Marinez’s forearm from a Christian cross made of rifles into the image of a vulture.

Nearby, Meigen Begley removed tattoos on the hands of 27-year-old Latin Count leader Gilberto Rios, using a pen-like tool to scrape off the outer skin, then injected saline. This pushes the ink into the crust, which peels off in a few weeks.

“There is a lot of crying from them,” she said, but not because of the pain. “These tattoos were their identity. (To give them up) is very emotional. ”

One she removed from Rios’s hand was an inverted “D,” a symbol of contempt for Marines’ gang.

The two talked amicably, comparing the work done on the tattoos on them that day.


“If they see each other on the street,” Berry said, “they will try to kill each other.”

The wealthy DuPage County is not considered a gang outbreak. Mendrick, who has been elected Republican sheriff, says violent crime in his county is often perpetrated by gangs in Chicago’s neighboring Cook County.

Mendrick is convinced that the program, funded in part by church donations, will help reduce crime.

“I am a religious person,” he said. “I feel I am meeting my calling.” Berry also cites religion as motivation.

The program also offers Bible lessons, anger management and decision making. And provides counseling to drug-addicted prisoners.

After his release, Eck wants to own a business. He believes he can apply leadership skills honed in his gang.

He is candid about the benefits of gang life.

“Being a gang member in my neighborhood was better than being president of the United States,” he said. “I wanted cars, women … strength, respect.”


The murder of his best friend two months before Eck was jailed a year ago began to change his mind. It was an internal blow from a Latin king who wished his friend a higher place in the gang’s hierarchy, Eck said.

“He took 16 bullets, four in the face. It was like enough, “Eck said, adding that the guilt of hurting others was also beginning to weigh on him.

Other participants also cite years of trauma from gang violence as motivation for wanting to leave. Chicago police say most of the nearly 800 murders in the city last year, for a quarter of a century at most, were gang-related.

In another tattoo session, Tom Begley traced a new image to a scar on Marines’ chest from the time he was shot at a traffic light last year.

The tattoo is on a clock set at 6:20, marking the date of his father’s death from a heroin overdose on June 20, 2016. Marines fell silent when he mentioned his father.


The 21-year-old knows he is in danger by rejecting his gang.

“I do not want to do this in 50 years. … I know many (adults) still in this life. And it just eats them up, “he said.

Ek attributes to Berry, whom he describes as a father figure, that he persuaded him to join the program.

“It has never happened that someone came to me and said there was another way to live,” he said.

Eck wants to create a meaningful life. Another sentence, he said, could send him to prison for life.

There are already signs of its transformation.

Speaking recently in the afternoon, he seemed startled to realize what a pronoun he used to speak of Latin kings.

“I say ‘they’, not ‘we,'” he said, looking at Berry sitting nearby and laughing.

He also stopped responding to the name of his street. When several prisoners approached him recently, he bristled.

“My name is Eric,” he said. “Hollywood? … I don’t know who you’re talking about.”


As he struggles to rediscover himself, he says he doesn’t want anything to do with his gang’s personality.

“I want to be able to wake up and never see this person again.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Prisoners leave gangs, undress dads for work, a better life

Source link Prisoners leave gangs, undress dads for work, a better life

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