Halfway through a newspaper interview about his life, the negative effects caused by the absence of African-American men in the Black community and how with the help of others he has been able to turn his life around, Dennis Derrico, a convicted murderer, began to cry.
As he talked, his eyes reddened and tears streamed down the sides of his face. His shaved head shook a little. I looked for a tissue in the office where we were sitting. I couldn’t find any.
He excused himself and went into the bathroom where he found tissue to wipe his face and his beard. He sat back down and apologized. He continued crying and gradually regained control. It was hardly a reaction I expected from a man who spent 22 years in prison.
“I missed my teens, 20s, 30s and part of my 40s,” he said with a laugh. He celebrated his 43rd birthday on July 5. At one time, he may have been what many considered to be a hardened criminal and though that part of his life cannot be denied or forgotten, he has no plans to relive it.
A Michigan judge sent him to prison at 19 for stabbing to death a 42-year-old man during an argument in Detroit. At his sentencing, the victim’s mother said she wanted him punished but she did not want him sentenced to life in prison. He had been living with his grandmother after his mother sent him to Detroit so he would stay out of trouble in Chicago.
He grew up in Englewood, a Southside Chicago neighborhood. The Michigan Department of Corrections released him from prison on March 28, 2017, to Cherice, one of his younger sisters, who lives in the Chicago area. His mother died while he was in prison and he never knew his father.
He described both his mother and stepfather as functioning drug addicts. For the first couple of weeks following his release, he felt as though he had landed on another planet. “I had a lot of high anxiety,” said Derrico, adding that he didn’t know about computers before he was sentenced to prison. Now they were everywhere.
He watched television, exercised and didn’t do much else. Cherice than asked what was the vision he had for his life. This prompted him to call a number of agencies, including the North Lawndale Employment Network, which was founded in 1999. The organization provides job opportunities for ex-convicts and is committed to the area’s economic development.
The network is funded by a number of organizations, including the Steans Family Foundation, whose goal is to revitalize North Lawndale, a neighborhood of 35,276 on Chicago’s West Side. Its boundaries are Arlington Street, Taylor Street and 5th Avenue on the north.
Twenty-first Street, Cermak Road and railroad tracks on the southern, eastern and western boundaries. The neighborhood’s population is 89 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic and 2.3 percent White. Martin Luther King Jr. lived there in 1966. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, lived in the neighborhood and was employed by the Lawndale branch of the Chicago Public Library. Other celebrity residents included musicians Benny Goodman, Ramsey Lewis and singer Dinah Washington.
There are vacant lots next to newly constructed homes. Homes that are boarded up next to incredibly beautiful two-story greystones. At the Homan Avenue elevated train station, an abandoned car with two bullet holes in the driver’s side window had its front passenger side tire bumped upon the curb in front of the entrance to the “L” stop. A patrol car was nearby for a while. There wasn’t yellow police tape or curious onlookers.
Today, North Lawndale’s star is its location. It is 5 miles west of Chicago’s Loop. You can stand in the middle of Jackson or Madison streets and see the Loop office buildings and gentrification moving further west. On Madison Street is where the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks play their home games.
In prison, Derrico began turning his life around. He took anger management classes and classes in conflict resolution. He also began working in landscaping with an eye to a vocation he would take up after he left prison.
He earned his GED (General Educational Development) and he read books about Black historical figures, including Frederick Douglass. Michigan is home to the “big three” U.S. automakers. But Derrico explained that Michigan was also known as the prison state.
When he was sentenced in 1995, Michigan operated 52 prisons. The Michigan Department of Corrections has closed many of them, currently operating 31 that house 41,000 inmates, a population larger than some small cities. The department also supervises 71,000 probationers and parolees, according to its website.
Derrico served time in 22 of the state’s prisons during his incarceration. In most of the prisons, located in rural parts of Michigan, the majority White staff went out of its way to insult Black inmates, telling them they did not know how to work together and that’s why Blacks have not achieved anything.
“It hurt to be put in that box,” he said, adding that their hostile, racist comments did not define him. “I knew that it wasn’t me,” he said.
His belief in himself received a boost when the Department of Corrections transferred him to Mound Correctional Facility, which is in Detroit and has a large African-American staff. Mound’s name has been changed to Detroit Detention Center.
Black men, including Victor Muhammad, regional director of the Nation of Islam’s Prison Reform Ministry in Michigan, and Judge Greg Mathis, a popular judge on television, spoke at the center to discuss why so many Black men are in prison and what needed to be done to change that trajectory.
Judge Mathis, a Detroit native, has launched a prisoner initiative called Prisoner Empowerment Education and Respect or PEER.
“Judge Mathis is committed to reinvesting in the prison population,” according to his website. “African-American men make up 50 percent of the national prison population yet they are only 6 percent of the nation’s population.”
Derrico is now a crew chief supervising seven others in North Lawndale Employment Network’s READI Chicago, which puts ex-offenders on an 18-month career pathway to regular jobs. The crew cleans beaches, parks and the city’s streets. Before joining READI Chicago, Derrico started with U-Turn Permitted, a four-week job readiness training program. He also worked for Sweet Beginnings LLC, which makes and sells an all-natural line of raw honey and honey-infused body care products. North Lawndale Employment Network has an office, a classroom and a bee aviary at 3726 W. Flournoy. Derrico and I recently met there.
“This is where it all started,” he said with a big smile. The READI job pays $35,000 annually, according to the website. His leadership qualities are readily apparent to others who have met him, including the late Mayor Harold Washington and Cook County Board President John Stroger. His success since leaving prison is a major source of pride for him.
“I have a car, an apartment and a family,” he said. Derrico compared himself to others who were released from prison about the same time or earlier than he, but who have not achieved what he has. Before he was sent to prison, there were plenty of signs along the way that he was headed there. As he talked about his early life, sometimes with a smile, I learned about his past. As a young teenager, he stole cars.
“That’s how I learned to drive,” he said with a laugh. He also burglarized homes. For his crimes, he spent considerable time locked up.
“I spent so much time in the Audy Home I thought it was my home,” he said jokingly of the Audy Home, a detention center for juveniles in Chicago.
He also was a member of the Black Disciples, a street gang in Englewood, and at one point he carried a gun for protection against rival gangs. He repeated seventh grade twice before he was kicked out of middle school for pulling a fire alarm. School officials transferred him to the 9th grade, but he didn’t last long there either. He dropped out of high school. Derrico said he wants to help and influence other black men by showing them how he has turned his life around..“The reason the Black community is the way it is because black men have been removed from the community. We as black men have not evolved,” he said.
He wants to start a landscaping business that involves planting flowers and trees to make Black neighborhoods beautiful.
“We react to what we see around us. That is my vision,” said Derrico, adding that his grandfather was a landscaper. On the block where North Lawndale offices are located, people have dropped empty soda bottles, candy wrappers and papers on the lawns and walkways. He also wants to earn a degree in social work with the goal of helping other Black men. Derrico is philosophical about the twists and turns in his life’s journey so far. He concludes, “I believe in a higher power. I was meant to go to Detroit. The life that I took there has now been given back to me.”