‘You can’t do this on your own’: Cook Co. sheriff’s program helps recovering addicts maintain sobriety

Four decades into his recovery, self-described former street hustler and gang member Benny Lee still attends weekly meetings to help maintain his sobriety.

“I’ve sat where you sit,” he told more than 40 people Tuesday at Ready 4 Recovery, a Cook County sheriff’s department program for individuals — mostly county drug court participants — who’ve completed drug and/or alcohol treatment and need ongoing support.

Attendees of a recent meeting at the Third Municipal District Courthouse in Rolling Meadows included a 20-something woman celebrating four, alcohol-free months, and a middle-aged man who marked eight months of sobriety that day. A 19-year heroin addict who appeared to be in his thirties announced he has been heroin-free for more than four years. Seventy-two-year old Gloria Branch, released from custody days earlier, proudly proclaimed 15 months of sobriety.

They were among several dozen recovering addicts — along with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers — listening intently and periodically applauding the dapper, 70-year-old Lee, who encouraged them to seek assistance from the recovery community.

“You can’t do this on your own,” said Lee, a onetime drug addict turned addiction counselor, and a high school dropout who earned bachelors and masters degrees and now works as an adjunct professor at Northeastern Illinois University.

  Northeastern Illinois University professor, addiction counselor and incarceration reentry expert Benny Lee, left, joined Marty Cook of the Cook County sheriff's department at a Ready 4 Recovery event this week at the county courthouse in Rolling Meadows. Barbara Vitello/

Marty Cook, community recovery specialist with the Cook County sheriff’s department, agrees with Lee.

“The cure for addiction is community,” he said of Ready 4 Recovery, which Sheriff Tom Dart established in 2021 at the Second Municipal District Courthouse in Skokie.

Meetings — held weekly in Skokie, twice per month in Rolling Meadows and monthly at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago — draw drug court defendants as well as recovering addicts who have no pending cases. Meetings typically attract 30 to 40 people ranging in age from late teens to seventies, Cook said.

The program is not a substitute for residential treatment or for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, he said. Rather, it’s an extension of those services.

Whether they begin their recovery journey in the back of a squad car, in a jail cell or in a courtroom, everyone takes it one day at a time, said Cook.

“They’re fighting every day,” he said. “Even if they stumble, they come back and try again.”

Like everyone else at the event, Lee’s fight continues.

“I still have a sponsor. I still go to meetings,” said Lee, who told the crowd he grapples with negative thoughts that led to a life of crime and landed him in prison from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

His incarceration included a stint on death row following the 1978 prison riot at the Pontiac Correctional Center during which three correctional officers were killed. Lee and 15 co-defendants ultimately were acquitted.

Just as they were socialized into addiction, ex-addicts have to “get socialized into recovery,” he said, which means accepting help.

“Change is possible. Recovery is a gift,” he said. “Give it away.”

“Giving it away” for Lee means sharing his story with others to keep himself grounded.

“I am the message I bring,” he said.

Sober for five years, drug court graduate Vernon Saunders, 58, says he has learned to persevere, “to be accountable and not blame others, to not be afraid to ask for help.”

  Benny Lee, left, is 40 years into his recovery. Gloria Branch, right, is 15 months into hers. She credits her sobriety to Cook County Judge Joseph Cataldo, center, who presides over the Rolling Meadows drug court. Barbara Vitello/

The recently released Branch said as a youngster she stole to help take care of her nine younger siblings. In her 20s she started using cocaine. Last year, she appeared before Cook County Judge Joseph Cataldo, who presides over Rolling Meadows drug court, and asked him for help.

She thought he would order her into treatment. He sent her to jail instead and it saved her life.

“He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” said Branch. “It made me feel somebody cares about me.”

As Lee concluded his talk, the eight months sober participant thanked him for sharing his inspiring story.

“I fought addiction all my life,” he said. “I can do this. I may not be where I want to be, but I’m not where I was.”

Individuals interested in participating in Ready 4 Recovery email the Cook County sheriff’s department at

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