Edith Hoskins knows exactly the point in her life when she turned to drugs.
From the age of eight until she was 11, she watched her stepfather beat her mother and brothers “time after time.” When she was 11, she finally confronted the man and threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop the beatings. Instead of being grateful for her daughter’s defense, Hoskins’ mother responded by turning her over to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Once in the DCFS system, Hoskins bounced from family to family and at 15, she saw her mother for the last time.
“When my mom turned me over to DCFS, that was my beginning for using drugs. I started with marijuana, then went to crack cocaine and then to the pipe,” Hoskins said.
Once Hoskins was addicted, her life continued to spiral out of control, until she began selling drugs to support her habit. She was eventually imprisoned for selling and might have become yet another statistic lost to the streets of Chicago if it were not for “Leslie’s Place.”
Located on Chicago’s West Side, Leslie’s Place is a transitional house run by Leslie Brown for former female inmates. Since its founding more than 10 years ago Brown has helped more than 500 women make their way back into the world after prison. But living at Leslie’s Place isn’t easy. Residents must follow Brown’s strict rules or they are asked to leave. It is an approach that has been enormously successful due in no small part to the fact that it is run by someone who intimately understands prison life. Brown is a former inmate herself who was once given a 20-year sentence for soliciting the murder of her husband.
Brown doesn’t deny the events that led to her imprisonment. She knew then and knows now that her husband’s death was wrong. However, terribly abused throughout her marriage, Brown feared for the safety of her children and for herself.
“My husband—I guess you could say he was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde guy. When he wasn’t drinking, he was Dr. Jekyll, but when he did drink, it was definitely Mr. Hyde,” Brown said.
Brown described a variety of abusive situations that she suffered at the hands of her husband. When she tried to go back to college, he burned every book she had. On another occasion, he threw her off a third-story porch. Still another time, he held a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her and their four children. Brown tried many times to leave her husband, but he would either track her down, or she would return on her own, persuaded by what she would come to learn were empty promises.
Bloody and Bleeding
“This went on for years,” Brown said. “Then one day, he hit me in the head with a pipe. I was bloody and bleeding, and my sister’s friend asked me: ‘Do you want me to kill him?’
“I said: ‘I don’t care what you do.'”
The friend took Brown’s statement as permission to commit the murder and immediately left, shooting Brown’s husband three times in the abdomen.
“Instead of feeling bad [about the murder],” Brown said, “I felt relief. I know it was wrong and I know that killing wasn’t the answer. I just snapped and he was killed,” she said.
A witness who saw the murder tied Brown’s name to the case. Brought in for questioning, Brown told the police what happened, including the details of the abuse she had suffered. Despite the history of abuse, Brown was arrested and charged with solicitation and conspiracy to commit murder. Her trial was set and she was eventually sentenced to 20 years of prison at Dwight Correctional Center in Dwight, Illinois.
Cheated by the System
Despite the fact that she felt her husband’s death was wrong, Brown also felt that being sentenced to 20 years in prison was unfair. She felt cheated by a system that had done little to protect her from the physical and verbal abuse she had endured.
“Many, many times I called the police. Many times my husband had a weapon; he had a knife or he had a gun and I would call the police. He was never arrested – not once. He was beating me once in the car and the police came and then they kept going. Never one time did they help me.
“I came to Dwight [Correctional Center] in 1983 and was angry, hostile, and full of animosity,” Brown said.
She thought her life was over and within a month of her imprisonment Brown began to consider suicide.
“I went to church as a kid, but not really as an adult. But when I contemplated suicide, God showed me my life before my eyes. He showed me my whole life. I saw how many times my husband tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed. God told me: ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’ I heard ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ and I felt peace. I knew I could make it.
To Love and Not Hate
“It was then that I accepted Christ as my personal savior,” Brown said. “I knew there had to be a better way. I had a desire to help – to love and not hate. Now I thank God that I am not bitter. I thank God I am no longer angry and I thank God I have forgiveness.”
Brown set out to make good on her desire to love and began to work to help her fellow prisoners. She noted that men’s prisons offered programs for prisoners to receive their college degrees, so she worked hard to bring college degree programs to female inmates. Though she was still in prison, she was determined to make the best of her situation. Brown described herself as a role-model prisoner, one who had faith she would one day get out and establish a new life for herself.
After serving seven years of her sentence, Brown’s situation began to change. Recognizing the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband, former Illinois Governor James Thompson pardoned Brown, and she was released from prison.
Brown didn’t forget her friends who were still in prison after her release, however. On her own time and with her own money, she began to transport children to Dwight Correctional Center so they could visit their mothers. She continued to do this until 1994, when she received a letter from a woman who was still in prison. The woman was going to be released soon, and with nowhere to go, she wanted to live with Brown.
Brown set the letter aside until a second letter came. When a third letter came, Brown said she thought, “Why not?” and allowed the woman into her home. In no time at all, other women followed, and Brown’s home soon became known as a haven for former inmates. Brown continued to visit the prison, giving seminars and encouraging women to make changes in their lives.
“I met Leslie Brown when she came down [to prison] to do motivational classes,” Hoskins said. “She saw something in me. She saw that I could stay off drugs if I allowed God into my life,” Hoskins said.
“She saw that the streets didn’t get to me. I wasn’t the type. I wasn’t robbing or hurting anyone. My friends would say: ‘This doesn’t fit you. You don’t look right. What are you doing out here?’”
“Even though I grew up on the street, God always protected my heart,” she said. “Now I know that I do deserve to be happy.”
Hoskins credits Brown with helping her deal with her mother’s rejection.
Caring to the Core
“I got a mother: Leslie. She’s more than I ever could have wanted. She sees things in me that I don’t even see. She’s an awesome lady. She really cares. Some people in ministry, they care, but not to the core. Leslie wants all of us to make it,” Hoskins said.
The women have a midnight curfew; they must attend life skills meetings and they must work or attend school. In addition, they are required to save 70% of their income. Residents have access to group counseling, job placement, computer training, parenting workshops, and self-esteem seminars.
Brown will also help the women get clothing, obtain state IDs and birth certificates, and will offer virtually any other service to help women move forward with their lives. According to Brown’s website 60% of ex-inmates in Illinois are re-incarcerated in the first year after they are released, but 97% of Leslie’s Place residents never return to prison.
No one disputes the notion that Leslie’s program has been stunningly successful. Debbie Denning, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Corrections’ Women and Family Services, has worked with Brown for many years. Denning said the IDOC does not keep statistics on Brown’s success rate, but stated Brown provides a critical service to ex-inmates.
“Leslie is a role model for the women she serves,” Denning said. “Eighty percent of our ladies are mothers prior to their incarceration. Leslie Brown offers one of the most important housing services to our ladies because she is a house that will accept children. She not only accepts children, but she helps the ladies get on their feet.
“It’s not just housing that she provides. She provides substance abuse counseling and helps keep these women on the right path. Leslie’s Place is a bridge for going back into the community and is vital to the success of our ladies. There are other transitional houses out there,” Denning said, “but they are not at the level of care that Leslie provides.”
Brown has 16 beds in her original house and 12 in “Leslie’s Place 2,” a second home that she recently opened. About 85% of her funds come from the Illinois Department of Corrections; additional support comes from private donations or from area churches. Using these resources, Brown is able to keep the residences going.
Still, money is tight, and the homes are generally operating “in the red.”
Hoskins, now 32, plans to stay at Leslie’s Place for four to six months. Working part-time and hoping to secure full-time work. Once she has more income, she can apply to stay at Leslie’s Place 2, which will give her more freedom, but will also charge rent for living there. Hoskins is optimistic she can continue to move forward with her life.
“Yeah, the drug lifestyle, the guys, the bling-bling–it calls me,” Hoskins said. But I can’t have that. I can’t be ‘kickin’ it. I don’t fit with that. It would consume my life and my world. I go to the 12-step [recovery] program, and I know I deserve to be happy and to have something. When God touches you, your power and strength come from Him. I won’t go back to the drugs. I have been delivered.”
Brown shares Hoskins’ optimism. “These women can hold their heads up. I do this every day by faith,” Brown said. “I never thought I’d even get a parking ticket, but when I was jailed, I knew I wanted to help women. This is not a one-person problem—this is a society problem that is always going to be here. We have to help these women not go back to prison.”