Montes Accepting Award

Jorge Montes, former Chair of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, was the guest of honor at a special tribute luncheon in Chicago on Dec. 11, 2010, sponsored by The Changing Minds Campaign.

A lawyer in Chicago, Montes was appointed to the Board in 1996, and became its Chair in 2002. He served with distinction until this year when Gov. Quinn, facing pressure during his election campaign, refused to reappoint him. Because of Montes’s outspoken leadership and willingness to recommend parole for some prisoners (very few; the Board denies the overwhelming majority of requests), several groups opposed his reappointment, including State’s Attorneys, so-called victims’ rights groups and corrections officers’ unions. Many others, including many individuals, small groups and newspapers, supported Montes’s reappointment.

Several members of The Changing Minds steering committee, many of them C-Number prisoners* who were released when Montes was on the PRB, were very disturbed when Montes was not reappointed, and expressed great respect for Montes, knowing the professional risks he took when the Board voted in favor of their release.

Jim Chapman, Chair of the Illinois Institute, started the proceedings by introducing Diedre Battaglia, who was the Warden at Stateville who permitted Chapman to become a volunteer teacher at the prison in 2005, a move that eventually resulted in the founding of the Changing Minds Campaign.

Chapman then introduced Duffy Clark, a well-known former prisoner who served some 34 years and who is now employed as a legal assistant at the Uptown Peoples Law Center, an outstanding advocate for prisoners’ rights.

Clark had high praise for Montes as well as Craig Findley who, with Montes, was a member of the PRB when he and several other C-Number prisoners, most in attendance, were released from prison.

Clark also introduced two other former C-Number prisoners, Melvin Haywood and David Wilson, who also expressed their appreciation and respect for Montes. Haywood now works at the Safer Foundation, a nationally known organization that assists formerly incarcerated persons upon their release. Both Haywood’s wife, Deborah, and his mother, Ruby, were in attendance. Wilson now owns his own printing firm, and he and his wife live in Joliet. Other ex-prisoners in attendance included many who had been out of prison for well over 10 years, most at least four or more years, all of them having worked hard to overcome many obstacles to transform themselves, and had become productive members of their communities.

The guest of honor was then introduced by Findley, who spoke of Montes’s principled leadership and dedication to seeing that justice was done, even at the risk of jeopardizing his own position. Findley expressed his own gratitude and satisfaction upon seeing that many of the former prisoners in attendance had kept their word that, if released, they would respect the PRB members by taking their place as productive members of the community, and not disrespect them by wrongful conduct once freed.

In his remarks, Montes acknowledged that he risked his own career when he and the Board elected to release several C-Number prisoners, but said he would do the same thing again without hesitation. He said that when he was forced to resign, he had cause to wonder whether his years serving on the PRB had any real meaning, but that this tribute helped him realize that he had touched many lives in a positive manner.

This unique event obviously was very moving for all in attendance, but particularly Montes and Findley, who were able to see the irrefutable proof right in front of them that their decisions to release these men – virtually all of them several years prior – had been vindicated; that they had made the right decisions.

Observed Chapman in his closing remarks, the event proved that many former prisoners have the desire and the ability to play an important, responsible role in society. Chapman said, however, that “the bad guys” were winning; that each element of the opposition to prison and corrections reform is able to mobilize their forces at a moment’s notice to appear at legislative hearings, board meetings, etc., to present their positions. Conversely, Chapman said, those who support improvements in the corrections system have had no effective organization; prisoners and former prisoners, their friends and families, and prison reform activists did not have a mobilized political base to counter the opposition. As a result, the opposition had been successful in forcing the removal of positive forces in the corrections system: in particular Warden Battaglia, Michael Randle, the first truly progressive Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and now Montes.

The purpose of The Changing Minds Campaign, Chapman explained, is to educate the people who are the natural members of the prisoner rights political base, to urge them to organize and take action to help change minds to create a platform for corrective action.

Footnote:* Since 1978, most prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections system are serving determinate sentences – that is, when they have served the time imposed by a sentencing judge, subject to reduction for “good time served,” they are automatically released.

There are, however, still a small number of prisoners sentenced prior to 1978 who are subject to discretionary parole. They are referred to informally as “C-numbers,” which stems from their IDOC registration numbers, which commence with the letter C. While their sentences contained no automatic release date, they contained the built-in opportunity for discretionary release at any time after 11 years served. That decision is made by the Illinois Prisoner Parole Board (PRB), an independent body whose members are appointed by the Governor. Early parole is never granted.

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More About Jorge Montes

Jorge Montes is a former Chair of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. He was appointed to the Board by Gov. Jim Edgar in October 1994. He served as Chair from 2004 until August, 2010. Mr. Montes earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications in 1985 from Loyola University of Chicago, and a Doctorate in Jurisprudence in 1988 from the Loyola University School of Law.

Mr. Montes served as a Supervising Litigation Attorney for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office; Editor of Passport, (an American Bar Association publication); and as a Spokesperson for the Office of the Illionois Attorney General.

He currently serves on various bar association committees and college boards, including the American Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has also hosted television and radio talk shows in Chicago.

He has been a member of the Illinois Department of Corrections Board of Education, and is a frequent speaker and guest on television and radio programs. He is also Chair of the Board of the Esperanza Health Center in Chicago’s Little Village.

He lives in Chicago with his wife and five daughters.