The DuPage County Sheriff’s Office has added a “final level” to its continuum of care model and gang desistance program. The sheriff’s office provides around 80 classes and programs like earning a high school diploma, as well as vocational training like welding and horticulture.
The final part of the program is the removal or cover-up of gang-affiliated tattoos. “When these people come in here, they don’t believe there’s a way to get out of gang life,” said DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick. “We’re getting people with at least a decade of that behavior ingrained into them from the early ages of 12 and 13 so they don’t understand that there is actually an exit door.”
When they first started this voluntary piece of the program a couple of months ago, Mendrick said none of the inmates wanted to take part. But by working with them, they’ve now done about a dozen cover-ups and tattoo removals and have over 100 people on the waiting list. “These are spokes in a large wheel,” said Mendrick. “So this spoke is so important because this is saying that I am now dedicating my life to being out of gangs forever.”
One person looking to leave that life behind is 36-year-old Erik Eck. From the north side of Chicago, he was introduced to gang group Almighty Latin King Nation when he was 13. Now he’s serving his sentence for residential burglary and hopes to be out in around three to six months, he said.
When the idea of covering up his tattoos came about, “I didn’t believe it actually,” said Eck. “I heard about it before. I heard people wanted to help people get out of gangs when usually they just want information about my organization.
“I took a leap of faith and it turned out to be the best decision I could’ve ever made in my life. Mike Beary, Sheriff Mendrick, and the whole team – I just never thought that it would be possible to get out of a life that I used to live and to be a normal person. I’m really excited to go be a normal person. I literally daydream about it, it’s pretty crazy.”
Once he’s out, Eck plans to start a career with a corporation or union, with the long-term goal of starting up his own business – a tattoo shop. “It’s going to be about women tattooing. I know a lot of girls that tattoo that don’t have great opportunities as much as the men, but they’re climbing up,” said Eck. “So I want to do a female-based tattoo shop.”
Eck currently has an entire sleeve that will be covered up. Work he’s had done so far is covering up the initials of the Latin Kings, “ALKN,” with a deer and forest, as well as a lion with a crown that is now covered up by a bear in the woods.
He decided to make this change after his best friend, who was also part of the Latin Kings, died around 14 months ago. “Losing my best friend to this pretty much did it,” said Eck.
In addition to his career goals, a “driving force” for Eck is his fiancée waiting for him. “I’m blessed to have her in my life,” said Eck. “I’m going to reinvent myself, I’m ready to make new friends, build a whole new family.”
Around eight local tattoo parlor owners are taking part in the program, doing the removals or cover-ups free of charge.
Naperville News 17’s Aysha Ashley Househ reports.
photo courtesy: DuPage County Sheriff’s Office
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