Harold Hagerman, APPRENTICE AT RESTORE JUSTICE ILLINOIS
Interviewed by Kayla Spencer
When Harold Hagerman was 17 years old, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to sixty-one years in prison for aggravated battery and murder. While incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center21 in southern Illinois, he earned his GED and an associate’s degree, graduating from Hill Correctional Center22 with a 4.0 GPA. Hagerman also completed life skills and reentry programs.
After serving twenty-eight years, Hagerman was released in April 2020. At the time of this interview, Hagerman had just reached the one-year anniversary of his release. He was living with his mother in Glenwood, Illinois,23 as her primary caregiver and working as an apprentice for Restore Justice Illinois, a nonprofit focused on compassionate criminal-justice reform. He hoped that sharing his experiences could help other young men navigate the challenges he faced before, during, and after incarceration.
As we spoke on one of the first sunny, seventy-degree days of 2021, Hagerman— newly vaccinated— was looking forward to an outdoor lunch with the Restore Justice program director. He was animated and eager to share his story, even as we discussed some of the difficulties of his past.
IN THE BEGINNING, all you were seeing was the stories on the news. And by all accounts, it was like, “You catch this COVID thing, you get sick, and you die.” That’s how it was being delivered to us.
When it hit the prison system, it just ran through Stateville.24 It was horrible, horrendous. We were seeing this stuff on the news, and we’re seeing the numbers rise. We saw so many guys going to the hospital that they can’t even hold them all, and people are dying by the hundreds. So naturally, we’re scared to death.
The state map is showing these different counties, right? And each county might start at zero. The next day, they get three, and so on and so forth. And ours remained zero for quite some time, until it said one. Then the next day, it said three. Through that process, a lot of us learned the meaning of “exponentially.” We were very familiar with that term. We knew that this thing was coming, and it seemed to leave nothing untouched. When [it] hit us, they locked the facility down.
Early on, they weren’t taking the situation seriously. The COs25 weren’t wearing a mask. They were joking about it. They would sneeze and cough as a joke because they knew how scared we were by the COVID thing. Just to freak us out. And being in there, there’s no form of social distancing. It’s, like, impossible, the social distancing in there. You’re in there with your cellmate, you share a vent with the people next door, you’re going outside into the day room, you’re all using the same phones, you’re using the same showers. It was really tough, man.
I was super concerned because I was coming home. I knew that you could be asymptomatic, so I didn’t know if I had it. I don’t know if my cellmate had it, and I was on the verge of coming home. I was concerned because my mother’s up in age. I was concerned about coming home and—God forbid—getting her sick.
I’m begging them to test me, like, “Man, can I please get tested? I’m about to go home.”
And it’s, “No, we don’t do that. We only test if you have new symptoms so severe that we’re pretty sure it’s COVID.”
And I’m like, “Man, can you please tell them I’m about to go home? I don’t want to risk getting my mom sick. I got all these concerns.” And it was like, “No.”
Their process was: if you develop any symptoms, cold-like symptoms, they just put you on quarantine, wait, and monitor you. And that’s it. That was the test. Like, if you’re sick to the point where they got to roll you up out of there, there’s a chance you got COVID. If you get better, there you go. That was pretty much the test. You didn’t get tested unless you was about to be put on a respirator. So that was scary.
But [I had to] man up. I put my mask on. I had to leave, you know? I had to go home. The whole family ended up getting tested, and we all were negative. That was a sigh of relief, man, but it was a really scary time because all we knew was that it was definitely like, “If you catch it, there’s a good chance you’re not going to make it.” The healthcare system in there is deplorable at best.
None of my close friends had it at the time, before I left, but all of them have had it since.
I had a pretty solid support system [growing up]. The issue with me, I think, was that my dad passed when I was 11. He was in Vietnam, and he came home really messed up. He was a good student, played drums in church, never did a day in the street. Just a really good, stand-up kid. He got drafted into the military. He got over there and saw some things no kid should ever see and experienced some things that traumatized [him]. When I grew up, there was a little turmoil during that period because he was struggling with psychological problems. I did witness some domestic violence and things of that nature in the house and home. Fastforward some years, he ended up committing suicide.
My mom had to raise me and my sister on her own. My mom is originally from Englewood,26 which is not a good area. It’s really rough-and-tumble, but she went to school, to college. She did everything she had to do to make a better life for her children. She did a damn good job of it. I learned a lot from her. She was working, like, three jobs, so she wasn’t able to be home and be as present, but she was hands-on and tried to stay on top of everything to the best of her abilities.
But, you know, kids, man. I didn’t have my dad and I’m sad. I just… I don’t know. My father passed, and I don’t know, something changed. Prior to that, I was [getting], like, all As, participating in all types of programs, all of the clubs, all that stuff. Then I got to high school and I just wanted to have fun and kind of hang out. I looked to all the wrong people for influence, for guidance. That’s how things went awry.
Me being young and impressionable, I just wanted to fit in with the cool crowd. I had cousins that were on the street that were tough guys. They were cool. They had all the nice clothes and the ladies. I looked up to them, so I was already familiar with that element, but I was too young to take part. When I got to high school, I was able to hang with these other guys. It was like, “These are my peers now. I can hang with these guys and they accept me. These are my friends.”
They were gang affiliated. We started having problems with guys from another area, but it wasn’t like gang banging or things of that nature. This was more of us protecting our neighborhood, right? It was like, we didn’t want anything to happen to anybody over there. When kids were playing in the park or something, we’d tell them, “It’s a lot going on right now. You guys go home.” It was things of that nature. It was mostly like getting into fights and stuff like that.
But one day, it took a turn. A friend of mine named Wayne was, by all accounts, a good kid. It’s important to note that he wasn’t in the gang. He was a basketball player. That’s what distinguished him from the rest of the guys that were around. He had a scholarship. He was about to go to IU,27 I believe.
This is over the summer. He was preparing to go to college. One day he was up there playing basketball. We had left, me and my friends, to go to the store. I said, “We’ll be right back.” We left and when we got back, I noticed that the ambulance was in front of the park. I knew that a lot had been going on in the neighborhood as of recent, but nothing real crazy. I told my men I knew something was wrong. When we got up to the park, Wayne was lying there dead.
What happened was, the guys we were having back-and-forth issues with called some guy from another neighborhood to come over there and help them with the problem that they was having with us. They didn’t come to fight. They came with weapons.
It was—it just—to just destroy this man’s life, everybody was kind of, you know, just traumatized by that. Wayne was the one that was supposed to make it. A good, great kid. And, you know, all of us? We weren’t bad kids. We were misunderstood.
That was a pivotal moment. It changed everything. I distinctly recall feeling so many different emotions, like so much anger and pain and hurt and fear and all these things at once, and it’s too much for my teenage mind to process.
We came to the conclusion that we had to seek a form of justice. We didn’t trust the police. We didn’t trust the system when it came to justice, so we sought out street justice. And unfortunately, we found it.
All we could think was revenge or retaliation. That was the only thing we figured would make us feel better about the situation. This was a justifiable cause, in my crazy, teenage, young kid thinking. I wanted to protect my friends. That was basically the gist of it, and in the process of seeking revenge, another life was lost.
I was initially sent to the Cook County Jail. That’s where I fought my case as well as the trial. Then I was sent to Menard Correctional Center, a.k.a. “The Pit.” The end of the road. It’s one of the prisons that’s as far south as you can go in the state. If you come in from anywhere in the Chicagoland area, that’s the one place you don’t want to go, because your chance of getting visits and things of that nature is pretty slim. It is scary to pull up to that place. It looks like a prison you see in the movies. It’s not as bad internally, but outside, it looks just like that.
[It’s a misconception] that we’re just in an empty cell with bars and a hole in the floor, curled up in a corner shivering. This is not that type of situation. You got TVs and electronics and appliances and commissary and cool cellmates, most times. I’m not saying it’s a cake walk; I’m not saying you’re living the dream. But it’s just not as dismal and dark. It’s not just a predator/prey type situation every day when you wake up. It’s not like that. I participated in a lot of different reentry programs and lifestyle redirection, behavior modification programs. I took anger management. I took a class called “Thinking for a Change.” I took another one called “Start Now” that’s just about changing your thought process from the person that you were coming in, to the person that you are now, and the person that’s going home and reentering society. They prepare you for a lot of this stuff.
I was working in the correctional industries too, in the meat-processing plant. By all accounts for prison standards, it’s like a real job. It’s one of the best jobs you can have working in the correctional industry. You punch in and punch out on the clock, and you get real paychecks and all that type of stuff. You learn some transferable skills.
I was able to accumulate two years of “good time,” which is basically good conduct credits, if that makes sense. I participated in a lot of those programs before it was incentive-based. That was just part of my rehabilitative efforts. I just wanted more for myself, and I wanted to prepare myself for the future.
I met some of my best friends in prison. Those are some of my closest friends now, including the program director of Restore Justice. We were cellmates. We were best friends. Wendell Robinson, he’s our program director.
Robinson was the first apprentice at the organization. With him going through the program directly under the executive director, he was able to carve out his own space, to carve out his own role and get on staff at the organization. After him, another guy followed, who is now the program associate at Restore Justice.28
These are my friends. I knew about the organization through them. Wendell had made me familiar with the program, and I told him I was on board. It was perfect. It allowed me to work in this space and to give back and help the people—my comrades—that I left behind. To be a beacon of hope for them, to fight for them and to work for them, and to keep them abreast [of] what’s changed, what policies are in place, what deals are being pushed, what laws can possibly go into effect that might change their situations.
I’m part of the Future Leaders Apprenticeship Program. It allows returning citizens like myself—who have a commitment to social justice issues and a potential to impact the nonprofit sector—it allows us the opportunity to engage, to use our skills and passions for social good, to take on leadership roles in those areas. This program is really, really important and, as of right now, Restore Justice is the only organization that offers it.
Restore Justice is a 501(c)(4)29 which allows them to go into politics and things of that nature. It puts me in a position to just be highly informed and to learn about advocacy and legislation. They go to Springfield and talk to legislators personally and lobby for bills to be passed. They draft up bills and bring their own stuff to the table and talk to legislators about things that can impact the system in a positive way. They create parole opportunities for people. They’re highly involved in the juvenile justice system too, in terms of fair sentencing, justice, and equity.
I’m working on developing a project where I basically host a series of interviews of system-impacted individuals like myself, who are making significant strides in this space and doing this work in the social justice realm. It’s highlighting and showcasing the accomplishments and achievements of returning citizens who have come home and hit the ground running. They’re doing magnificent things in terms of social justice and criminal justice reform and reentry and mentoring programs. I believe that those stories need to be told, what can be achieved when given a second chance.
This organization is built on second chances, and it fights hard to fix this broken system. I want to do everything in my power to contribute to that, and to forward the agenda of Restore Justice. This is home for me.
[I was released] April 29 of 2020. How do you put that first day into words? It was exhilarating.
In a weird way, I was prepared. I didn’t have a lot of the anxiety that you hear about. I was fully prepared to come home. I just walked out of the gate and I was, like, free.
The most standout moment, though? The first day I came home, they took me to Walmart. That was a memorable experience. They have so many options. This is a crazy sensory overload. I can’t even—woo! I can’t even explain it. You get in there, and you have no idea what to do first. What size you wear, what you like, what you don’t like. It’s like, “I like everything. Look at this stuff!”
We always joke among each other, like when guys come home or they’re about to come home: “You got to take him to Walmart first. You got to take him.” It’s a thing now. It’s a hell of an experience. And just being out here now, it’s so normalized. You take things like that for granted, but to come home and just see that, it’s like everything is just here at your disposal. It’s a beautiful thing.
That was the first day. Seeing my mom, I got emotional because she was at home. I didn’t want her to travel to come pick me up with the pandemic [because] we would be in such a small space in the car. I hadn’t been tested, and I knew you could be asymptomatic. I didn’t want to chance, you know, with my ride back in that little space. When we got home, we hugged a little bit, and I got a little emotional.
Seeing my family, seeing how big and tall my niece had gotten—I’ve been imprisoned since she was born—seeing my family and a couple of my friends and being able to hug them—because of the pandemic, it was a little scary. We had a mask and stuff, but you can’t social distance if you haven’t been free with these people in almost thirty years. You picking them up and swinging them around and doing this whole thing. That was fun.
It was just an awesome feeling to be home after all that time and see how much the world had changed. It was a completely different world, even from what you’re familiar with, the areas you’re familiar with, from your old stomping grounds or surroundings or buildings or landmarks or shopping malls that have either expanded or gone. A lot of stuff is gone, and a lot [has been] built over that stuff. I was wide-eyed about the whole situation.
I wouldn’t change anything in terms of being able to come home two years early, but I would have liked not to come home during a pandemic. It was like something out of a movie, man. It was really crazy, almost like the apocalypse. Imagine me coming home from prison and welcomed to this big world that is full of these endless possibilities, like, “Hey, man!” But it was like crickets, like, “Man, you go get in the house. What are you doing?”
I couldn’t really celebrate my release the way you typically would. There was no big party, no social gatherings, none of that. There was no pomp and circumstance that probably could have surrounded me coming home after almost thirty years.
Now, I’m trying to do all the right stuff and am just putting every effort into becoming a law-abiding, productive member of society. I love, love, love life and love freedom. And I’m happy to be home. It’s a welcome change of pace. It’s quiet. It’s a long way from prison, I tell you that.
21 An Illinois state prison located in the town of Chester. It houses maximum-security and high mediumsecurity adult males. It is the state’s largest prison. Source: https://www2.illinois.gov/idoc/facilities/Pages/ menardcorrectionalcenter.aspx
22 A medium-security prison in Galesburg, Illinois.
23 A village in Cook County about twenty miles south of Chicago.
24 A maximum-security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois, just outside Chicago.
25 Correctional officers
26 Englewood: A neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago.
27 IU: Indiana University. At the time of Wayne’s murder in 1993, IU’s Division I basketball team had just won the Big Ten Conference and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
28 Nelson Morris, whose narrative can be found in Virus City on page 63
29 501(c)(4): An organization exempt from federal income taxes under section 501(c)(4) of Title 26 of the United States Code. Unlike a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4) may engage in political advocacy and lobbying. Source: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopici03.pdf
The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the cover above for more info!
BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases