WHEATON, Ill. (AP) — On pain of being beaten or dying, Erik Eck pledged at age 13 to adhere to the first rule of the Latin Kings: “Once a king, always a king.” The tattoos that adorn his entire body express his forever loyalty to one of America’s biggest gangs
Now 36, the Latin King’s longtime enforcer is trying to leave anyway. He seeks to erase his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang and job termination program he and 11 other inmates have enrolled in at a Chicago-area prison.
The Associated Press has gained exclusive access for two days to the first 12 inmates enrolled in the largely privately funded program at the DuPage County Jail and their cell block. For their safety, they are isolated from the 500 other inmates of the prison, half of whom belong to gangs.
Eck, imprisoned for burglary, earned the nickname “Hollywood” on the streets for his bluster. But nightmares woke him for days before he recently entered the prison’s new tattoo removal wing.
“This life is all I’ve ever known,” Eck said of her decision to disfigure the tattoos that have been central to her identity for 20 years. “But it’s for the best.”
He added: “I feel like the change has officially begun.”
One of the goals is to land inmates jobs in horticulture, welding and other areas they learn, said the program’s civilian director and chief architect, Michael Beary. He said there was growing interest among businesses scrambling to address labor shortages related to COVID-19.
Vocational training was available previously, but a focus on gangs and tattooing was added this year.
“I used to beg companies to hire these guys. Now they’re like, ‘As long as they show up for work, we don’t care what they did,'” Beary said, longtime business owner and executive director of the nonprofit JUST of DuPage, founded by a Roman Catholic nun to develop rehabilitation programs for inmates.
Inmates are not promised jobs or reduced sentences. But if they graduate, they get help finding work and moving away from their gangs. A letter from the sheriff praises their participation.
To graduate, participants must have their gang tattoos removed or covered with other tattoos. It’s proof, DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick said, that they’re serious about giving up their old lives.
“It’s a point of no return,” he said. “It’s a commitment to themselves – and to us, that we don’t waste our time.”
The first tattoo Eck had covered was the one on his arm of the Latin Kings initials. Prison-sanctioned tattoo artist Tom Begley inked an image of a deer on it during a four-hour session in February. Covering all of Eck’s gang tattoos will take months.
A roaring lion – a favorite symbol of Latin kings – has recently been converted into a roaring bear. Eck must be careful to choose animals that are not the symbols of other gangs. A rabbit, he said, came out. It is a symbol of Latin Kings rival Two Six Nation.
Begley and his wife, Meagan Begley, of the suburban electric tattoo parlor, jumped at the chance to lend their skills. Inmates painted a mural on a wall of the prison’s three-chair tattoo studio. It says: “Hope, purpose and redemption.”
The day before, Tom Begley transformed a Satan Disciples tattoo on Jaime Marinez’s forearm from a Christian cross fashioned from guns into the image of a vulture.
Nearby, Meagen Begley removed tattoos from the hands of 27-year-old Latin Count leader Gilberto Rios, wielding a pen-like tool to scrape the outer skin, then injecting saline solution. This pushes the ink into a crust, which flakes off for several weeks.
“They cry a lot,” she said, but not because of the pain. “These tattoos have been their identity. (Abandoning them) is very moving.
The one she pulled from Rios’ hand was an upside-down “D,” a symbol of contempt for Marinez’s gang.
The two chatted amiably, comparing the tattoo work done on them that day.
“If they saw each other on the street,” Beary said, “they would try to kill each other.”
Wealthy DuPage County is not considered a hotbed for gangs. Mendrick, an elected sheriff as a Republican, says violent crimes in his county are often committed by gangs from Chicago in neighboring Cook County.
Mendrick is confident the program, funded in part by church donations, will help reduce crime.
“I am a religious man,” he said. “I feel that I am answering my call.” Beary also cites religion as a motivation.
The program also offers courses on the Bible, anger management and decision making. And he provides counseling for drug-addicted inmates.
Once released, Eck wants to own a business. He thinks he can apply the leadership skills learned in his gang.
He’s outspoken about the benefits of gang life.
“Being a gang member in my neighborhood was better than being president of the United States,” he said. “I wanted the cars, the women… the power, the respect.”
The murder of his best friend two months before Eck was imprisoned a year ago began to change his perspective. It was an inside shot by a Latin king who coveted his friend’s highest position in the gang hierarchy, Eck said.
“He took 16 bullets, including four in the face. It was like, enough is enough,” Eck said, adding that the guilt for hurting others was also starting to weigh on him.
Other participants also cited the trauma of years of gang violence as motivation for wanting to get out. Chicago police say most of the roughly 800 homicides in the city last year, the most in a quarter century, were gang-related.
In another tattoo session, Tom Begley traced a new image onto a scar on Marinez’s chest from being shot at a red light last year.
The tattoo depicts a clock set to 6:20 a.m., commemorating the date his father died of a heroin overdose on June 20, 2016. Marinez falls silent when he mentions his father.
The 21-year-old knows he is putting himself in danger by rejecting his gang.
“I don’t want to do this in 50 years. … I know many (adults) still in this life. And it just eats them,” he said.
Eck credits Beary, whom he describes as a father figure, for persuading him to join the program.
“I never had anyone come and tell me there was another way to live,” he said.
Eck wants to create a meaningful life. One more criminal conviction, he said, could land him in prison for life.
There are already signs of his transformation.
Speaking on a recent afternoon, he looked surprised when he realized what pronoun he was using when talking about Latin kings.
“I say ‘they’ not ‘we’,” he said, looking at Beary sitting nearby and laughing.
He also stopped responding to his street name. When several inmates approached him recently, he bristled.
“My name is Erik,” he said dryly. “Hollywood? …I don’t know who you’re talking about.
As he struggles to reinvent himself, he says he wants nothing to do with his gang persona.
“I want to be able to wake up and not see that person anymore.”