Life started well for Jerome Dillard.
Born on Chicago’s South Side, Dillard and his two younger sisters were raised by a mother who worked in a factory, a stepfather employed at a steel mill, a grandfather who was a self-taught locksmith and grandmother who was a domestic worker.
“That was the norm,” he said, “doing jobs and raising families. We lived pretty good.”
But over time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, jobs vanished, his stepdad became a cabbie and family breadwinners became unemployed. A heroin epidemic consumed the inner city and violence followed.
At 15, Dillard witnessed two homicides. He and a buddy were hanging out but separated while fleeing some men. Dillard heard gunshots and backtracked to find the friend lying against a wall, taking his last breath. A few months later, he and friends saw his girlfriend’s mother slain after fleeing a car parked outside a residence.
No one asked how it affected him.
Trauma had struck Dillard’s family long before. His grandmother witnessed her brother’s lynching. Another of her brothers was killed by a sheriff. His father was killed when Dillard was 6.
“I walked around for a very long time a very angry man,” he said.
By age 17, Dillard found trouble, and a judge offered the choice of jail or joining the military. He chose the latter and spent most of his three-year hitch in Germany, where soldiers were returning from Vietnam addicted to drugs.
Dillard was a good soldier but was also self-medicating. “I began to use heroin, whatever I could get may hands on,” he said.
After discharge, he returned to Chicago, the city still in the grip of a drug epidemic. “Very few of us were able to avoid drug addiction and the lifestyle that went with it,” he said.
After spending some time in Philadelphia, where he had a good job at a sugar factory before it closed, he returned to Chicago, working low-paying jobs and resuming his drug habit.
Then, he started hustling, white-collar crimes, identity theft, cashing checks, credit cards. “I never sold drugs, I never carried weapons, I was never arrested for any violent acts.”
In the 1980s, he got caught and spent two years in the Cook County Jail, vowing to never be incarcerated again.
But in 1987, he was convicted of misuse of Social Security numbers and check fraud and sentenced to five years in federal prison. He began to realize the effect on his family, especially the embarrassment to his grandmother.
In prison, he saw many young men with drug convictions serving lengthy sentences. “For me, it was an eye-opener,” he said. “This is a form of genocide.”
After release he found a good job doing medical collections and a woman who loved him. But one day he fell to a craving for crack cocaine — “self-sabotage” — and resumed the hustle, the leader of a ring that traveled the country. Caught again, a judge sentenced him to five years in prison.
Fellow inmates finally helped Dillard realize that he could no longer associate with past friends.
Dillard, now 63, also knew he had to become spiritual. In 1996, he went to Union Tabernacle Church, now called Fountain of Life, on the South Side.
“I came up a hustler and had an ankle bracelet, but Pastor Gee and the rest of the church embraced me and held me accountable,” he said.
He slowly built up a resume and was eventually hired by Madison-area Urban Ministry, helping start a program to help people coming out of prison. Since then, he’s served as director of re-entry and advocacy services at Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development; as a peer support specialist for the Wisconsin Resources Center; Dane County’s re-entry coordinator; state director for Ex Incarcerated People Organizing; and director of re-entry for the Focused Interruption Coalition.
“The War on Drugs started 30 years ago,” he said. “Doors being kicked in. Parents being taken out of their houses. A lot of these families are dealing with chronic stress. We’re dealing with a generation of that.”