By Robert McClory
Howard Saffold is bombing along the East-West Tollway in his huge Mercury Grand Marquis, headed for the state prison at Dixon, 100 miles west of Chicago. Beside him is Edgar Gosa, a longtime friend. Saffold is talking about ministers--how they have to be "part of the process," how they need to help "retrieve young bloods from the system," how the crimes and imprisonment among the young have brought "pain and misery in every pew" of their churches.
Saffold is a big man, not fat or especially tall but with large hands, broad chest, wide shoulders--like an NFL linebacker. His ideas are also large.
"I don't think the black community clearly understands how the whole criminal justice system impacts on us," he says. "So individuals and families struggle with their problems in isolation from one another. We have to stop what's going on. We have to interrupt the cycle of crime, arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. And it's got to be done at the community level."
Saffold is one of those drivers who steer with one hand, gesture with the other, and turn around a lot to make sure the passengers in back are getting the message. But somehow he stays in the middle of the lane. Howard Saffold does not wander.
Someone suggests he could have been a preacher.
"Yes," he says, "I've been told that before." There is a long, uncharacteristic pause. Then he says very quietly, "Maybe I'm saving myself."
During the past 25 years Saffold's name has appeared sporadically in the press. In the 1970s as president of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League (AAPL), Saffold served as a kind of Robin to Renault Robinson's Batman. Robinson, the league's executive director, got the notoriety and the quotes when the organization sued Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Police Department over racial discrimination--and after a six-year battle in federal court won its case. Saffold, whose own turbulent career as a police officer was almost a clone of Robinson's, was intimately involved in it all, often working behind the scenes.
In the 1980s he headed security for Mayor Harold Washington. He was there when candidate Washington was heckled at a north-side church. He was in the background when Washington lifted his arms on election night in 1983 and said, "You want Harold? Well, you got Harold!" He was with Washington throughout his entire time in office, possibly closer to the mayor than any other person.
The circumstances of Saffold's life have changed considerably in the past nine years, but the general direction remains constant. He is the founder, director, and chief activist of PACT (Positive Anti-Crime Thrust), a small, multipurpose organization with a staff of three and a handful of volunteers, most of them former police officers like Edgar Gosa.
PACT is a successor to one of the old Afro-American Patrolmen League offshoots, the League to Improve the Community. Designed by Robinson, Saffold, and others to promote cooperation between police and community groups, especially churches, the offshoot went bankrupt in the 1980s when the AAPL came on hard times. Saffold personally resurrected the idea when he retired from the police force in 1991. He has put together a board of ministers, psychologists, lawyers, and educators, all involved in aspects of the criminal justice system.
Much of his energy these days goes into meetings with grass-roots groups on the south and west sides that are trying to rehabilitate ex-cons before they commit more crimes. Most of the groups are relatively unknown outside the black community: Probation Challenge, Prison Action Committee, My Sister's Keeper, Inmate Relief Organization.
They're all small and underfunded, says Saffold, but they're the agencies that have street contact with people on the fringes, and they get results. He has already persuaded many of them to cooperate in a loose coalition called PRAY (Prison Reform Advocacy Yardstick). Saffold is less than enthusiastic about better known, well-funded groups like the Safer Foundation and the John Howard Association. "They're too bureaucratic," he says. "Big agencies tend to usurp enormous resources and employ hundreds of people, but I don't see a lot of impact."
As a former cop, Saffold is no bleeding heart. But he's alarmed by the results of the "punishment syndrome": Ex-cons, he says, "come back every month by the hundreds. They come back to our communities homeless and jobless, far worse than when they went in. They come back as predators. They wreak havoc."
Though education and rehabilitation top the PACT agenda, they do not exhaust Saffold's energy. It's "the whole system" that needs an overhaul, he insists. So there's scarcely an institution of society or an agency of government that escapes his interest and scrutiny.
In Chicago today, the hope of the 70s for a peacefully integrated, interracially cooperative police force has evaporated, and most of the figures who fought for or against the AAPL have moved on to other venues. Likewise, the entourage that surrounded Harold Washington in the 80s has largely dispersed, and so have the pride and euphoria that filled the black community in those years. Social and racial problems are pervasive and seem to many to be only getting worse.
Meanwhile, there's Saffold, 55, a pensioner, racing around like he's on a mission from God. He's never been busier. He's in high schools, in churches, at community meetings. He's conferring night and day with drug counselors, probation officers, ex-cons, government bureaucrats, and legislators. He's testifying at hearings, organizing seminars, attending national conferences, leading workshops. In his spare time he's working for a doctorate in policy analysis at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And here he is burning up the highway to Dixon so he can spend an afternoon with a hodgepodge of society's losers.
Says the Reverend Helen Sinclair, a chaplain with the Illinois Department of Corrections, "Howard is rare. He relates to these people because he's real and people know it, whether they're inmates or not." Sinclair, who has been in prison work for 30 years, admits she doesn't quite understand his determination and passion. "Howard's a fightin' man," she says, "not one of them scaredy little people who just sit around. Usually when you see a fightin' man you find he comes from fightin' people."
Saffold recalls his father DeWitt, who died in 1987, as a "disciplined, high-principled man who never cussed and rarely complained," though he had severe health problems. DeWitt expected his seven children to pull their own weight, and Howard--the middle child--has had income-producing jobs almost as long as he can remember: delivering papers, selling cosmetics door-to-door, working in a factory from 4 PM to midnight while he was in high school. His parents separated when Howard was 18, and he was one of three children who moved with their father from the near north side to Douglas Park. Devoted to work, Howard also demonstrated an early proclivity for fighting. He was suspended for a month during his senior year at Farragut High School, and family friends urged him to join the army after graduation.
"I'm glad I did," he says. "I was a pretty immature character at the time." After completing his three-year stint, he tried to join the police force in Washington, D.C., where he'd been stationed. He passed the written portion of the exam but was told he failed the physical because he was missing too many teeth. "I had a few pulled as a kid," he says, "but it was no big thing. I didn't realize then that D.C. had an extremely racist police force."
He returned to Chicago and settled in with his bride Carol. (The two have been married for 36 years.) Saffold worked for a while as a CTA motorman, took the exam for the Chicago police force, and was hired in 1965. He says he did not go in with any other goals than to make a good living and hold a respectable position. He got a quick education on his first assignment, the Shakespeare District, where he was one of only two black officers. Saffold says he was told he'd be assigned to a patrol car with a different partner every day because the men weren't anxious to associate with a black; once he learned the ropes he could expect to work in a one-man car. "I lived a pretty isolated life," he says. Later it was reported that several of his fellow officers at Shakespeare belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.
His disillusionment deepened in 1966 when he witnessed the prolonged beating of a 16-year-old Latino youth who'd been apprehended after leading officers on a high-speed chase in a stolen car. "The beating must have gone on for ten minutes," he says. "They knocked him unconscious, then they just kept getting in their licks. It was like the Rodney King thing."
No one acknowledged a racial element to the beating. One policeman told Saffold it was so severe to discourage other would-be joyriders, since "the kid could have got us killed." But 30 years later Howard Saffold is still shaken by the incident. "These guys were vicious," he says. "You didn't know what they might do." The prosecution of the youth was delayed for several months, he recalls, so his injuries would have time to heal before he faced the judge.
Saffold once almost got himself killed when he tried to flag down a driver who had driven through a red light. The man refused to pull over; he kept driving for several blocks, then pulled up in front of his home with Saffold right behind, his light flashing. Suspecting trouble, Saffold radioed for assistance. Several men got out of the car and hurried into the house, while the driver flatly refused to hand over his license. "He told me, "I don't have to give you nothin',"' says Saffold, "and just walked away. I said, "You're under arrest,' and he resisted." Saffold wrestled the driver to the ground and put him in a headlock, then realized that several men had emerged from the house and one had a shotgun. Fortunately, another policeman arrived at that instant, pulled his gun, and defused the tension. Saffold cannot prove racism motivated the driver or his companions. What he knows is that this aggregation of whites felt less than intimidated by a black officer. The driver was charged with running a light, failure to have a license, resisting arrest, and battery against a police officer. Yet when the case got to court he was found guilty only of not producing a license, fined $25, and released. Saffold says he later learned the man was the nephew of a local ward official.
Less than three years after joining the force, Saffold was ready to resign. "I had enough," he says. "The whole thing had been one big, rude awakening."
In July 1968, contemplating resignation, he saw a television news report about the formation of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League, a group of officers who declared in their opening statement, "We will no longer permit ourselves to be relegated to the role of brutal pawns in a chess game affecting the black community. . . . Donning the police uniform has not changed us. On the contrary it has sharpened our perception of our responsibility."
Saffold did not know these founding fathers, who included Renault Robinson, Edward "Buzz" Palmer, Frank Lee, and their chaplain, Father George Clements. But from a distance their organization seemed a godsend. He joined the league, was quickly appointed vice president in charge of recruitment, and became a zealous organizer. After the fatal 1969 raid on the west-side apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, AAPL membership soared, and when the organization sued the city and the police department in 1971, claiming discrimination in hiring practices, promotion methods, efficiency ratings, and disciplinary procedures against minorities, the media began to pay attention.
The personal and career costs for Saffold, Robinson, and other high-visibility league members were heavy. During his early years on the force Saffold had been cited regularly for dependability, promptness, and attitude. Immediately after his identification as an outspoken AAPL leader, he began to be hit with complaints from his supervisors. For several years he averaged one a month. He was transferred around the city at a dizzying pace. During one 18-month period, he was moved from the Area Four task force to the Englewood District to Marquette to Fillmore to the Cabrini-Green Vertical Patrol to Town Hall. He was harassed and threatened; his wife Carol received anonymous calls, some saying Saffold was dead and others that he soon would be. He viewed it all as a badge of honor; the treatment was no better, no worse than that accorded to his friend Robinson and the other activists.
The continuing hearings in federal court on the discrimination suit revealed an ugly side of the Daley administration. Thanks in no small part to the aid of pro bono lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis, the league was able to document how the recruitment and entrance process was, in fact, bringing to the police force the sort of psychologically maladjusted people who should never be given a uniform and gun. In the mid-70s there seemed to be a general awakening to this multifaceted problem; some speculated that the electorate just might be prepared to take action.
With the support of the AAPL, Saffold tested that theory. He took a leave and in 1975 ran for alderman of the Seventh Ward. He got drubbed. "We were totally inexperienced and easily sabotaged by the powers that be," says Saffold. Still, he doesn't think the campaign was a failure. "It was at that point we started looking around for a candidate that really could harness the energy that we were feeling."
In January 1976 the AAPL achieved a major victory. U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall found the city guilty of knowing and deliberate discrimination in police hiring and promotions. Marshall said he had "despaired" that the police department (at that time 17 percent black in a city that was 33 percent black) would ever come up with a remedy on it own; he was therefore imposing on the department a 42 percent minority hiring quota for males and a 16 percent hiring quota for women. In addition, Marshall ruled that police authorities had engaged in "a pattern of prosecution" against AAPL members and ordered punitive payments to Robinson, Saffold, and five other black policemen prominent in the discrimination case.
In the wake of the decision, Saffold continued his recruiting efforts for the AAPL. The day Mayor Daley died, less than a year after Marshall's ruling, Saffold was on trial in Cook County Circuit Court. He'd been spreading league promotional literature in the Second District station and refused to leave. A tense confrontation resulted and Saffold was charged with battery against a police officer. "The charge was pathetic," he says. Apparently the jury agreed; he was quickly acquitted.
Saffold's contributions to the AAPL were "tremendous," says Robinson, his longtime associate. "Nothing was more important to him. He gave 25-hour-a-day dedication to our work. You could ask Howard anything and he'd do it--sweep the floor, go to the White House, whatever. He's the kind of guy you wanted standing next to you in a tense situation because then you felt comfortable."
Robinson, a senior associate with a large personnel management firm in Chicago, has deliberately avoided the public eye since his tumultuous term with the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1980s. He insists he is content in the private sphere. "I think Howard's not totally fulfilled in what he wants yet," says Robinson. "I'm not sure what his goals are but he's definitely a bulldog."
Whenever Saffold begins talking about the current state of the Chicago police he looks strained and weary. All that struggle all those years--and for what? "When I look around," he says, "it's like we're back where we started. The mean-spiritedness that fashioned exams and fixed promotions to create a contrived and selective law enforcement system is still around. Only the methods are more sophisticated now."
Judge Marshall's imposed quota system stayed in place for several years; but it was reduced from 42 percent to 25 percent in the early 1980s and dropped completely in 1986. Saffold blames the AAPL in part for that. "The responsibility was on us to be vigilant, to report to the court on progress," he says, "but we didn't stay alert. We just didn't have the continuing legal expertise we needed, and the AAPL was no longer reproducing itself."
The departure of Robinson hurt a lot, as did the decision by Mayor Jane Byrne to terminate a payroll deduction agreement allowing dues for the AAPL to be taken out of the paychecks of consenting officers and passed on directly to the organization. This organization, which once claimed more than 75 percent of Chicago's black police officers as members, saw its roster quickly thin out. Today, in place of one activist organization, there is a hodgepodge of minority police groups including the Chicago Law Enforcement Organization, the West Side Police Association, the Guardians, locals of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the National Black Police Association, and the AAPL (renamed the African-American Police League). Saffold doubts that all of them together have the membership numbers of the old AAPL.
To be sure, minority enrollment in the police department has risen since Marshall's 1976 decree. The force is now 25 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. But minority growth has been achieved amid so much rancor and resentment that no one is cheering. In fact, the 20th anniversary of the federal decision came and went earlier this year, and no one noticed. Every police promotional exam in those 20 years has been challenged in court, most of them by both white and minority groups, and at least six of those challenges are still pending.
There was room for hope when new multimillion-dollar, "absolutely nondiscriminatory" promotion tests were administered in the last two years. But when only 5 of the top 114 qualifiers for sergeant were minorities, and only 3 of 54 qualifiers for lieutenant turned out to be black, Mayor Richard M. Daley expressed "extreme disappointment." Some quick adjustments of the qualifying lists tried to "correct" the imbalance, but these only sparked white charges of reverse discrimination and minority charges of bias in the original exams. "What I see," says Saffold, "is an old, familiar story. The hierarchy has to have minority police in the minority communities to maintain law and order, but they intend to keep control of management. They don't want so-called independent thinkers on the force or moving up through the ranks. And the way to do that has always been through the oral part of hiring and promotion exams. That's where a lot of control can be used."
He adds, "I feel sorry for white cops today. They're as much victims of the manipulation as blacks are." Meanwhile, his PACT organization offers educational sessions for minority police recruits preparing for exams. "If you understand something of how the system works, you're bound to have some advantage," he says.
The connections between the old AAPL and Harold Washington go back to the late 1960s, when Renault Robinson was looking for a legislator in Springfield willing to sponsor a bill establishing a citizens review board to oversee police procedures. To his surprise, Washington, then considered a loyal Daley Democrat, agreed to be sponsor. The relationship grew in the 70s, and when Washington agreed to run for mayor in 1977, albeit reluctantly, following Daley's death, Robinson tried to put together a coalition to back him. Saffold and other league members insisted on acting as a security detail, though Washington insisted he didn't need one. "We couldn't have a black man running around by himself seriously talking about being mayor of Chicago," Saffold commented at the time. "The establishment might pay some dude to hit him upside the head just to discourage him." The Washington campaign fizzled, however, and Michael Bilandic breezed to victory.
Saffold and Robinson had gotten a glimpse of what kind of man Washington was, and their friendship evolved over the next six years. In the early 80s the AAPL had its offices on the second floor of a building at 78th and Cottage Grove, while Washington, by then a U.S. congressman, maintained an office on the third floor. Saffold and Robinson frequently had breakfast with him when he was in Chicago. And when in 1982 the so-called Committee to Elect a Black Mayor got rolling, Robinson was at its center and Saffold at his side.
"Harold didn't want to run this time either," says Saffold. "He'd tell us, "Where's the support gonna come from? You guys downstairs don't have any money. Who's gonna pay for all this?"' A coalition did form nonetheless, and Washington campaigned vigorously in black and white neighborhoods, always with Saffold, Frank Lee, and other AAPL veterans providing volunteer security. During the debates between Daley, Byrne, and Washington, Saffold felt antipathy rise up against the black upstart, and he got into a number of confrontations with Byrne's police escorts over his right to accompany Washington.
One of the new mayor's first official acts was to name Howard Saffold as head of his security detail. Suddenly the cop who had been bounced around the city as an unwanted troublemaker was on a par, in terms of authority, with Chicago's district police commanders. He attended their meetings and says he is sure his presence "had a chilling effect on the usual bullshit."
The security job was not easy. Saffold declines to talk in detail about the problems he encountered, hinting that some day he will write his own account of those years. "The police department, the mayor's own army, resisted him," he says, anger rising in his voice. "There was such a level of resistance, such meanness shown toward our first black mayor."
As security chief, Saffold oversaw a small battalion of officers providing round-the-clock protection. He accompanied the mayor all over the country and to Japan, China, England, Italy, and Israel. The FBI graded Washington as a highest-level security risk, Saffold says, not only because of a steady stream of racist hate mail but because, as the black mayor of a world-class city, he was important to the national image. Saffold and the mayor formed a deep personal friendship that went well beyond the scope of security.
Alton Miller, Washington's press secretary, talks of the contrast between Saffold as the mayor's guardian and Saffold as the mayor's confrere. "On duty Howard always had this state-trooper exterior," he says, "that calm smile that reveals nothing but says don't mess with me. He was the quintessential cop, always referring to Washington as "mayor."' But off duty, says Miller, it was "Harold." The mayor regularly sought Saffold's counsel on issues of policy and strategy, he notes, and Saffold never hesitated to share his own views, whether the subject was the need to wear a bulletproof vest on certain occasions or the advisability of going on a diet. "They could argue long and loud," recalls Miller, "but they argued like brothers. The bond was always there. . . . I believe they were intellectual equals, and I don't think anyone was closer to the mayor. . . . In many ways Howard was the mayor's alter ego."
Miller remembers that someone with considerable clout--he doesn't know who--tried to get Saffold dumped from his position during Washington's latter years as mayor. The mayor, he says, talked and fretted about the pressure he was under but refused to yield.
On the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, when Washington was stricken at his desk in City Hall, Saffold was driving to work and heard the news on the radio. He rushed to the hospital and stood in helpless shock with the mayor's fiance, his brother, and a few old friends. Today, he says, he is still recovering from the shock. In the Washington years "I saw the potential of a rejuvenated people."
On the long drive to Dixon Saffold keeps talking about Illinois prisons as a "major growth industry." The statistics bear him out. In 1978 the state had 9 adult institutions; in 1996 it has 26. That's 17 new prisons in 18 years. Three more are under construction and another two are in the planning stages. That's because the 26, which were built to house 24,000 convicts, now hold 38,000. The budget for the Department of Corrections (DOC) this year is $864 million, and it should easily top a billion dollars by the year 2000. Incarcerating the guilty is not the only thing prisons do. They also provide big-time construction contracts and job opportunities for thousands--inside the walls as security personnel and outside the walls as service providers. A new prison can turn around a local economy. That's what the "super-maximum security" institution nearing completion far downstate is doing for Tamms. The prison will house what Nic Howell, DOC public information director, calls "the worst of the worst," but it is already bringing to this once-sleepy town of less than 1,000 an unprecedented housing and business spurt.
The prison boom can be traced in part to tough determinate sentences, which give judges little or no leeway to consider extenuating circumstances. It can be traced in part to the influx of women into the correctional system. (In 1974 there were 130 women in the system, all held at the Dwight prison; today there are 2,200, at Dwight and four other facilities.) But it can be traced in the largest part to the war on drugs. In 1987 drug convictions accounted for 5 percent of those sent to Illinois prisons; last year they accounted for 22 percent.
Saffold estimates the recidivism rate at about 75 percent, and every time a repeat offender goes back to serve another stretch he leaves the community a little more damaged and its citizens a little more crippled. It is becoming clear that the escalation of incarceration cannot go on indefinitely. It's just too expensive, says Saffold, both in human tragedy and in taxpayer dollars. Yet he sees no coordinated efforts to break the cycle: the education of inmates is not even a minor priority with the DOC, he insists, and rehabilitation programs after release are sporadic, underfunded, and mostly ineffective. "I don't think Corrections spends even 8 percent of its budget on education," he says.
On this point, Saffold's estimate is too generous. The DOC, in fact, will spend just a little over 4 percent of its budget on inmate education this year. The amount ($36 million) is a little higher than last year's but considerably lower than it was before the federal government in 1994 canceled all Pell grants to prison inmates. Nevertheless, Nic Howell insists "a full range of educational programming is available to anyone who wants it." He says he sympathizes with Saffold's concerns but adds, "He needs to find a new bad guy because we ain't it anymore." The official recidivism rate, says Howell, was a little over 42 percent for those released in 1992. However, since the rate is based on the first three years after a convict's release, offenses after that period are not considered.
"When something is broke this bad it's gotta be fixed," says Saffold. "I'm doing what I can."
In the large auditorium at the prison in Dixon Saffold stands at a podium and addresses some 250 men. A handful are Hispanic, the rest black. He pulls no punches and sounds even more like a preacher than he did in the car. But it's a grittily honest kind of preaching.
"Makes no difference what you did or why you did it or whether you did it," he says. "You here!"
"This could be a breathing period," he says, "a time to ask yourselves who am I and what am I about." He goes on at length about different kinds of law: man's law ("selective, often arbitrary"), community law ("holds women sacred and children precious"), and "then there's God's law." Saffold lists some "thou shalt nots," then thunders, "But the most devastating part of God's law is you gonna reap what you sow!"
No one snickers; no one walks out. There are a few cries of "That's right!" and some sporadic applause. This aggregation of dope peddlers, robbers, rapists, and murderers appears mesmerized.
Saffold ridicules the sort of activities that have landed many a citizen in Dixon. "A man busts into my house so he can take a funky little black-and-white TV, and I come in while he's there, and he's gonna kill me. That man's a fool! And a stickup man with a little half-broke gun goin' around pistol-whippin' folks 'cause they ain't got enough money. He holds up eight people one night, gets himself caught, and he ain't even got the money he needs to make bail. I'm telling you--he a fool! And if you get yourselves in some gang war while you're in here, then you the fool!"
The men laugh, not in derision but in recognition.
Toward the end of his 30-minute rouser Saffold gets very serious, urging the men to get hold of themselves now and "take control of their hood" when they get out. He explains his "5-90-5 theory." At one extreme are the 5 percent of the human race who are instinctively noble and high-principled ("They don't want to talk to you and they don't need to"). At the other end of the spectrum are the 5 percent who are beyond repair ("low-life, stinking scum"). The middle 90 percent are unsure where to go ("a big cesspool of apathy and indifference most of the time").
"When you're in transition," says Saffold, "hook up with some of the people who are trying to do something."
"What would happen," he asks, "if the men in a community decided that no one's gonna snatch no nine-year-old and rape her? No old folks gonna have their purses snatched? No drugs gonna be sold in this community? If you get it together there's a possibility we can save the babies. . . . The strongest voice against drugs is someone with a substance abuse record."
It won't be easy, he says, because "there's some of the trickster in all of us," and "if you're not serving God then you're serving the adversary, the master manipulator. . . . I beseech you, think what you can do to help the kids out there."
At the end he gets a standing ovation. A dozen men crowd around, giving him their names, asking how to get in touch with the organizations he's talking about once they're out.
When he's not on the road Saffold operates out of the tiny two-room PACT office at Kennedy-King College. He apologizes for the boxes and files and stacks of literature that he hasn't sorted out. "I've got to be more disciplined," he says. Pinned to the bulletin board on one wall is a map of Illinois showing the location of all the state's prisons. On another is "An Open Letter to Chicago Gang Members" that appeared in the Defender. "Are you proud of poppin' a 15-month-old baby?" reads the subhead. Beside it is a reproduction of a document from 1712 titled "How to Keep Slaves Under Control."
One of Saffold's prime projects these days is Rites of Passage, a course of instruction that tries to instill a sense of self-worth and responsibility. It is based on an old African maxim that every human has a built-in capacity to succeed and recommends certain rites or rituals to mark life's transitions from childhood through old age. Saffold believes it can be an especially effective tool for black Americans, since the stress is on moving out of oppression (especially self-oppression) and toward freedom. "It's not magic, not religion," he says. "It's a method of substituting certain kinds of acceptable behavior for unacceptable behavior." He has been trying to get the program into Illinois prisons, and he hasn't been especially successful.
Late last year Saffold, accompanied by another former cop, a substance abuse counselor, and a Rites of Passage teacher, met with the warden and the top-echelon personnel at the Pontiac prison to explain the concept. "There must have been 35 or so there," he says, "security heads, operations managers, program coordinators--mostly white--all sitting around and listening to our pitch. And you could feel the threat level rising. When we got through they just sat there, hardly said a word."
Saffold is convinced they were already panicking at what might happen if the inmates really grew in their sense of self-esteem; guards in particular tend to recoil from anything that might upset the balance. So no immediate decision was reached about Rites of Passage at Pontiac. Saffold was told someone would get back to him, and he's still waiting.
"You know," he says, "that meeting was like a microcosm of white America's attitude toward race. Here are all these overcrowded prisons without any real education or remediation. But we're not ready for change. Do they think riots won't happen, that we can just keep packing them in?"
Saffold would like to bring into the prisons teams of volunteers from the grass-roots organizations in the black community: counselors, conflict-resolution specialists, Rites of Passage instructors. "We could maybe begin to create a sort of buffer zone between the free outside world and the hopelessness inside the walls," he says. But he has raised neither the money to train volunteers nor much interest from the institutions themselves.
PACT has been successful, however, in setting up a program in which high-school-age youth, including dropouts, are bused to prisons for a tour and a bit of "entertainment." With the cooperation of chaplains and leisure-time coordinators at several prisons, the inmates put on in-your-face programs for the visitors involving skits and personal testimony--all designed to destroy any illusions about the glamor of life behind bars. "I've seen the impact that sort of thing has on teens," Saffold says. "We want to make it more widespread."
Former Cook County judge R. Eugene Pincham calls this prison visitation project a "superb idea," something the Department of Corrections would give "high priority to if it were serious about changing attitudes of young people." Pincham would go so far as to offer reduced sentences to inmates willing to participate in these programs. "Saffold's doing a whale of a job," he says, "but I'm afraid the system doesn't appreciate that sort of thing."
Saffold has also gotten personally involved in Chicago's public schools--at Austin, Englewood, and Phillips among others--because in his holistic point of view everything works together for good or ill. Last spring he served on a committee of concerned citizens summoned at Austin High, which had severe gang, crime, and dropout problems. Some school officials were convinced stability could not be regained unless at least 80 of the oldest, slowest, and most troubled students were expelled. Saffold argued that this would solve nothing. Those expelled would not disappear; they would ravage their neighborhoods and end up costing the taxpayers millions for their years of incarceration.
The committee agreed, and the Austin administration consented to an innovation--the establishment of an evening school for the high-risk teens. It began in September and drew some 40 of those on the brink of dismissal. Saffold met personally with the teachers and principal of the evening school on a daily basis for several months, and he thought the approach, involving a lot of down-to-earth guest speakers to supplement the traditional curriculum, worked well. But the costs were high and the enrollment low, and the project has since been restructured as a more conventional alternative school. Meanwhile, Saffold keeps meeting with administrators at several south-side schools, looking for ways to get through to young people. "The alternative is chaos," he says.
Anything pertaining to criminal justice is grist for his mill. Mary Powers, director of the police-watchdog organization Citizens Alert, recently wanted Saffold to testify at a congressional hearing in Washington on a piece of legislation that would severely curtail citizen rights in cases of police abuse. She was able to contact him, however, only one day before the hearing; he had just returned from a national police meeting in Kansas City. "He was exhausted," says Powers, "but he agreed to go and stayed up until three in the morning writing out his testimony." In the 23 years she has known him, Powers says, he has never failed to come to the assistance of her organization. "There's no one in the world I have more respect for."
The Reverend Howard Bailey, chairman of the Cook County Board of Corrections, calls Saffold an "amazing energizing force, someone who keeps his ear to the ground, maintains connections all over the place, and is creative." Bailey, who is founder and president of Probation Challenge, a rehabilitation program for parolees, says pressing for change in the criminal justice system is "the hardest task anyone will ever have to do--and those called to it have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk."
"Howard does it," he says, "because he's compelled to. It's a spiritual task. You're not allowed to bow out."
In conversation, Saffold does not often or easily discuss his relationship with Harold Washington or his experiences in the Washington era. It is obvious the impressions go deep. The pain is still there. "I'm glad I saw it, was part of it," he says slowly. "I saw that even a place like Chicago, backwards as it is, is capable of being salvaged with the right leadership." Washington's leadership, he says, wasn't confined to blacks: "He spoke the language of the common man. He held people accountable. He understood other cultures and wasn't threatened by them."
Harold Washington, he says, "believed there was more good than bad in human nature, that people would be willing to do the right thing if they were treated fairly. He was the embodiment of a public servant."
Saffold recalls that when his oldest brother Joe died, Mayor Washington not only attended the wake but stayed there four hours, chatting with the people he met about their concerns. "That's the kind of person he was--he got his strength from the people."
Saffold is "ashamed" that in 1996 there is no core of leadership in the black community to take up the gauntlet, but he doesn't see that as a reason to despair or stand around idly waiting for a new messiah. "Wherever you turn the problems are right in your face," he says. "I've got all kinds of relatives--cousins, nephews--who are recovering addicts or in prison or just not adjusting. The young folks need us now. They need the wisdom of the elders."
He refuses to believe that all that was learned in the 70s and 80s is lost. "I'm still committed to the civil rights struggle," he says. "It's energy to me, it's a reason to get up in the morning. I'm not burned out and I don't want to spend the rest of my life with people who are."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photograph by Lloyd DeGrane.