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Some Illinois Job-Seeking Inmates Swear Off Gangs, Tattoos

Under penalty of a beating or death, Erik Eck pledged at age 13 to adhere to the Latin Kings' first rule: “Once a King, always a King.” Tattoos that bedeck his entire body express his fealty to one of the nation's largest gangs Now 36, the Latin King enforcer is trying to leave anyway. He is seeking to scrub his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang-cessation and jobs program he and 11 other inmates joined at a Chicago-area jail The Associated Press got exclusive access over two days to the first 12 inmates enrolled in the largely privately funded program at the DuPage County Jail. For their safety, they're isolated from the jail's 500 other inmates, half of whom are gang members.

Eck, jailed on burglary charges, earned the nickname “Hollywood" for his swagger. Nightmares jarred him awake for days before he walked into the jail's new tattoo-removal wing. “This life is all I’ve ever known,” Eck said about agonizing over his decision to deface the tattoos that have been central to his identity for 20 years. “But it’s for the better.” One goal is to land the inmates jobs in horticulture, welding and other fields they're learning, said the program’s director, Michael Beary. He said there’s booming interest among businesses scrambling to address COVID-19-driven labor shortages. “I used to beg businesses to hire these guys. Now they say, ‘As long as they show up for work, we don’t care what they did,'" said Beary, a longtime business owner and executive director of the nonprofit JUST of DuPage, founded by a Roman Catholic nun to develop reentry programs for inmates.

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