Robert L. Armstead Sr. was sentenced to two years on a weapons charge, but Gary residents now thank him when they see him working in the community.
“They ride past, they give us water, they give us Excedrin. They thank us,” said Armstead, 48, of Gary. “That's what drives us to come here each and every day to do the job.”
Armstead is one of 16 to 24 Kimbrough Center residents who join Gary crews each day as part of a three-month-old volunteer project, said General Services Director Cozey Weatherspoon.
“This is a supplement that we have needed,” Weatherspoon said. “We only have 21 people in our workforce on payroll, workers that actually perform the work. Therefore, it's been a monumental task to cover 243 miles (of city roads).”
The convicts work for free. Their only payment is letters of recommendation from Weatherspoon and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson once they are released from Kimbrough, 2600 W. 93rd Ave., Crown Point.
“It's a nice place to start a reference. We work really hard, give our time and services, to help our community,” said Kimbrough resident Marlon Johnson, 36, of Hammond. “We've got to stand up and start to take our communities over, especially out in Gary. There's a lot of rundown streets and raggedy buildings here.”
Workers with no work
Lake County Community Corrections Kimbrough Center residents are nonviolent offenders and people transferred from area prisons for good behavior. They are supposed to spend their days working jobs in the community — when there are jobs.
“Don't get me wrong, they have been going out looking for jobs, but due to the economy there weren't too many people hiring,” said Charles Blacknell, a custody officer at Kimbrough.
“And probably added to that strife also is the fact they were convicted,” Weatherspoon said.
The idea to start asking Kimbrough residents to help with maintenance work came from Gary Park Board Commissioner Alma White, Weatherspoon said. Residents who want to help must ask Blacknell if they can join.
“We call it the 'Gary crew,'” said Kimbrough resident Eric Jackson, 44, of East Chicago. “I love coming out here every day. It gives me something to motivate me, something to do.”
Resident Jesus Carrillo, 41, of East Chicago, said while piling debris from a downed tree why he volunteers: “To clean up the city. To make it look nicer, help people out.” Carrillo was sentenced to a year in Kimbrough for a probation violation.
It costs residents $10 a day to stay at Kimbrough, money that would normally come from jobs they find. Gary's program doesn't defray any of those costs, but the residents hope the work experience and letters of reference will help them get a job later.
“I'm most definitely praying everything works well that I can pay my bills and also the bills left behind from before my incarceration,” Johnson said, referring to his child support payments.
Work with no workers
Gary, simply put, does not have the money to maintain itself. It has had to be creative.
Volunteers through the new Adopt-a-Park program maintain parks that have been decrepit for years. A Northwest Indiana Green Vision Project working with Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura will sentence young offenders to green space maintenance through Lake County. The city's recycling program also is using Kimbrough volunteers.
“Gary's pretty messed up,” said Kevin Vasser, 32, of Calumet City, who was sentenced to two years at Kimbrough for violating his probation.
Although the work has been sidetracked by storm cleanup several times this summer, the Kimbrough volunteers are getting to projects that should have been done some time ago, Weatherspoon said.
And Gary residents are grateful.
“They've been treating us so nice in the community,” Jackson said. “That motivates me. That makes me want to work hard and get back out there.”
It helps that the volunteers can see the results of their work, Weatherspoon said. One Kimbrough worker helped make about 250 traffic barricades and then was assigned to help set them out July 4.
“I could hear a sense of pride in his voice when we opened up the door and started moving the barricades,” Weatherspoon said. “He said, 'Man, I made these.'”
Gary's reaction also motivates the convicts, Blacknell said.
“You've got people in the community thanking them, and you know that's something they probably never heard in their life,” he said.
Two volunteers' stories:
Robert L. Armstead Sr.
For Robert L. Armstead Sr., 48, of Gary, it started with a broken taillight as he dropped off his grandchildren at a family member's house.
A police officer pulled him over and didn't like what else Armstead had in his car.
“It's dangerous in Gary, right? So I had a gun,” Armstead said.
Armstead was given two years at the Kimbrough Center for the illegal weapon. Part of the program is finding a job in the community, a difficult task right now for anyone, much less someone in the corrections system.
“I looked for a job in the Crown Point area and Merrillville and Gary. I was unsuccessful,” Armstead said.
He said volunteering for the Gary program was his way of “doing a good deed.”
“I decided to come here and give it a shot and hopefully get a break,” he said. “Guys like myself, we've been hoping to get a break like this.”
Eric Jackson, 44, of East Chicago, spent 8½ years in prison for aggravated battery before he was transferred to Kimbrough for good behavior.
“It was nice for me because I've been behind the walls like that,” he said.
Jackson has been at Kimbrough for three months. His release date is Oct. 23. He would like to get a job with the city of Gary, if it will have him.
“The whole Gary system, they welcome us like they're their family or something. They don't downgrade us. They welcome us,” Jackson said.
His three daughters, ages 16, 12 and 9, are another motivator to get a job once he's released. The youngest was a month old when Jackson went to prison.
“I've got some kids, too, you know, and I like to work,” he said. “I like to do labor work.”