Contrary to what his name may suggest, Chicagoâ€™s Johnny Outlaw doesnâ€™t wear a six-shooter or black cowboy hat. Thatâ€™s because he operates on the right side of the law. For more than 10 years, he has dedicated his life to providing legal aid and job-finding help in the cityâ€™s most impoverished areas, driven by a core belief: Those who have served their time in prison deserve a second chance.
â€œThe most discriminated [against] class of people in our society are these guys on release from state and federal prison,â€ he says. â€œWhatever happened to paying your debt to society?â€
Mr. Outlaw operates out of a tiny cramped office on the campus of Kennedy-King College, a city-run community college on Chicagoâ€™s South Side, where he shifts between two phones that seem to never stop ringing. He is a one-man shop: On a recent Thursday, he mentions that he has fielded 43 phone calls so far that week, and 23 letters from inmates sit on his desk awaiting replies. Heâ€™s already had 17 appointments that day with people seeking counseling, whether itâ€™s helping them learn how to expunge their criminal records or connecting them with employers who will take a chance on young men and women who have served their time and now want something better.
He works where he was born: in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood that continues to make national headlines for its street violence, where 42 percent of the households are below the poverty level, and where unemployment is about double (21 percent) that of the city as a whole, according to the 2010 US Census.
Outlaw works as the director of reentry programs for Teamwork Englewood, a local organization that operates several programs designed to strengthen the community.