Gerald Whitehead, the oldest member of the trio at 49, had been released from jail just a week before, after being cleared of a heroin-possession charge, the most recent stumble in the struggle to turn his life around after decades of violence and addiction.
The beekeepers are ex-cons. One is a convicted rapist who can barely read. The second, a violent gang member, has never held a job. The third is a slick drug dealer.
They live on Chicago’s West Side, where jobs are few and many men are, like the apprentice beekeepers, almost unemployable because of their criminal records. A small social service agency wants to turn their honey into a business, and the beekeepers into working citizens.
These are probably the most alienated, misunderstood and feared people in American society, easily dismissed, too easily caricatured and, far too often, headed right back to prison.
“Finding work can reduce someone’s chances of returning to prison,” reporter Louise Kiernan said. “(But) checking the conviction box on an application poses only one hurdle. Many former inmates face other problems, from poor education and little understanding of working-place rules to drug addiction or a lack of stable housing. And behaviors that help people thrive on the job — teamwork, communication — are often the opposite of those that ensure survival in prison.”
Judges said Kiernan’s “reporting is enterprising, thorough and authoritative. Through the stories, readers appreciate the daily struggle of former inmates to live straight, and the enormous pressures facing job-training programs in keeping former convicts from returning to prison. The tale is fresh, engaging, relevant and genuine.”
When asked about the difficulties encountered in putting this story together, Kiernan replied, “To be able to devote time and resources to a story like this one is an enormous privilege. Really, to enter a world, explore it, examine it, try to understand it and, ultimately, to explain it to other people — what could be a better job?”