All posts tagged: mass incarceration

Review: Reclaiming the Crown, The Footwork King’s Battle with Money Bail

It was spring 2016 and Devoureaux Wolf was on the rise. Also known as “King Detro, Chicago’s footwork king,” Wolf’s dancing career was taking off: he’d won numerous dance competitions, hosted a dance show on Wala Cam TV, and had just started his own program, Dance N Out, that aimed to steer youth on the West Side off the street and onto the dance floor. He never expected getting a ride home from a friend’s brother would radically alter his life’s course. But that’s exactly what happened. The car was pulled over and Wolf was quickly dragged out by Chicago police officers, who then arrested him and charged him with assaulting them. Though the driver had the foresight to film the encounter to disprove the police’s account, simply being charged landed Wolf in Cook County Jail with a $3,000 bond that he could not afford. Over the next three and a half months, Wolf would nearly lose his apartment, his hosting job, and his connection to his community. On top of that, Wolf’s uncle passed …

Teaching Classes Inside, Building Knowledge Outside: An Interview with Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project

The Illinois Department of Corrections is made up of 28 prisons that hold nearly 44,000 people. While the number of inmates has steadily increased since 2000, Illinois prisons followed a national trend in increasing sentence terms due to mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws. Alongside the trend towards longer sentencing, the 1994 Crime Bill Act eliminated low-income incarcerated people’s access to Pell Grants for higher education, dramatically decreasing the amount of educational programming in prisons. Amid instability and overcrowding, incarcerated people make art, get married, have children, and live entire lives that the outside world hears little about. Artist and instructor Sarah Ross taught Art History classes at Danville Correctional Center through a remaining community college program, where she met incarcerated artists, did critiques and put together shows for the outside. When she was asked to teach at Stateville Maximum Security Prison in 2011, that experience informed the values she brought in to her classes. Ross reached out to her networks to invite more people on as instructors to offer incarcerated people a range of educators and …

Inside the Just Art Program at Cook County Jail: Part 2

Continuing the Envisioning Justice project’s coverage of Just Art, I sat down with Aimee Krall-Lanoue, a teaching artist who has facilitated weekly writing classes at Cook County Jail since May. Just Art, which began in 2015, currently consists of three teaching artists who instruct on visual art and writing. Krall-Lanoue is also an English professor and writing center director at Concordia University, and specializes in basic writing. She is interested in the ways that language is used to construct hierarchies, and increasing political awareness around language. One of her larger life goals is to create community writing centers all over the city, staffed by (paid!) writers who live in those communities. Over coffee, we discussed Just Art, pedagogy, and the structural barriers that prevent people from coming to writing. Jordan Sarti: Can you talk a little about pedagogy and how you teach classes differently at a basic writing class at Concordia versus at the jail? Aimee Krall-Lanoue: This is one of the things that I was very concerned about, was that I can make a lot …

Inside the Just Art Program at Cook County Jail

Across the U.S., 2.3 million people are being held in correctional facilities. Around 536,000 of them are being detained pretrial—more than most countries have in their jails and prisons combined. And as much as our prison population swells with people serving life sentences, shorter-term pretrial detention, and the architectures and logics that come with it, are distinctly American. Cook County Jail’s brutalist facility looms over 96 acres of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It is the largest single-site jail in the country. In 1985, the average daily population was about 5,000. By 2012, that number had nearly doubled. An estimated 90 percent of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail have not been convicted of a crime but are being held in pretrial detention, often because they can’t afford to pay the bond set during their pretrial hearing. Late last year, after Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered court judges to set bail only in amounts defendants could afford, the average bond amount in Cook County fell by over 80 percent, from nearly $134,000 in 2016 to $22,000 …

The Right to Heal: An Interview with Artist & Activist bria royal

bria royal is a 24-year-old multidisciplinary artist from the West side of Chicago. bria’s work often deals with Black and Indigenous mythologies, ecofeminism and futurist possibilities. In 2017, she released a graphic novel titled Black Girl Mania which fuses science fiction and personal narrative to follow a protagonist navigating mental illness in a post-climate change world’s last habitable land mass. Most recently, she illustrated Missing Daddy, a children’s book written by one of Chicago’s most prominent organizers and prison abolitionists, Mariame Kaba. Kaba has had a hand in developing many of Chicago’s radical organizing projects, including Project NIA, Chicago Freedom School, Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women, Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, and We Charge Genocide. At Northwestern University, where she studied Communications, Film, and Psychology, bria helped form Unshackle NU, a political action group that pressured the school to divest from private prison corporations and companies that profit from the prison-industrial complex. As part of Unshackle NU, bria created an animated short called Prison-Industrial Complex 101. There she met Kaba, …

Encircling Community with Circles & Ciphers: An Interview with Steve Serikaku

Within Circles & Ciphers‘ programming, Community Peace Circle is a long established institution in both the neighborhood of Rogers Park and the city of Chicago. This space represents my earliest interaction with the organization and provided me with a foundational understanding of circle facilitation. Circles & Ciphers presently offers four types of circles on a weekly or biweekly basis to accommodate a range of different social and gender identities: Young Men’s, Women of Color, Freestyle, and Community. Community Peace Circle offers a flexible format which caters to the broadest range of identities and ages allowing these groups to interact and share space with one another. In order to further understand the types of people who give shape and meaning to the Community Peace Circle, I wanted to interview attendees to see what drew them into the space and what keeps them returning. This interview was conducted with Steve Serikaku, a local resident of Edgewater who is also involved with several social justice efforts that align with his Unitarian Universalist faith doctrine. Mike Strode: How are you …

A Win for Humanity: Interview with Dominique Steward of BBF Family Services

Dominique Steward and I met at the first of several open houses to be held at BBF Family Services this year as part of the Envisioning Justice initiative. Entitled “Powerful Platforms: a Community’s Call to Action,” the open house was designed to bring awareness to the concerns central to Envisioning Justice, which invites Chicagoans from around the city to address the impact of incarceration in their communities. (I also met BBF Family Services President and CEO Rufus Williams at the open house, which included a roundtable discussion on police-community relations.) Steward moved from a longtime career at the College of DuPage to BBF Family Services in North Lawndale three years ago. After starting in development for the organization, she is currently the Envisioning Justice North Lawndale Hub Director.  I recently sat down with Steward on a quiet Saturday morning at BBF to discuss her vision for subsequent Envisioning Justice programming. I work for UCAN, another social service agency in North Lawndale, so I was particularly curious about her previous work on the agency’s development side, and …

Broadcasting Art From Inside Cook County Jail

On the night of the screening of Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, the newest intervention in Maria Gaspar’s 96 Acres Project, the area around Cook County Jail was vibrantly alive. Cars zoomed by with teenage girls poking out of sunroofs, Mexican flags draped around their shoulders, and passengers shouting “Viva México!” in honor of Mexican Independence Day that weekend. Facing the north wall of the massive compound—the largest jail in the country—a parking lot was converted into a viewing space, with folded chairs orbiting around large speakers tuned into Lumpen Radio. William Onyeabor songs played as about fifty people settled in for Radioactive’s second screening. A group gathered around what looked like a food cart, but was actually William Estrada’s Mobile Street Art Cart project, making screen prints that read “Families Belong Together/Abolish ICE/Abolish Prisons” and pinning them up to dry on clotheslines. As the sun set the lot filled out, buzzing. Behind the wall, the light from a single room spilled out through a barred window. With the Radioactive screenings and other aspects of the 96 …

IMAGE: A black and white photo of AnnMarie Brown in conversation with three teaching artists from Circles & Ciphers. One of the artists points towards the others from out of the right frame of while AnnMarie and the two other artists look in their direction.

Restorative Lifestyle: A Conversation with AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers

Between August 22nd and 24th, several practitioners came together for Restorative Justice Summit 2018 to hold generative conversations about the meanings and shared narrative they locate within their work. One year into North Lawndale’s pilot of the Restorative Justice Community Community Court, we see these practices deployed in schools, correctional facilities, court systems, and community organizations throughout the city. All of these spaces hold their own internal relational dynamics which affect how restorative justice looks on the ground. In the Restorative Justice Community Court of North Lawndale, the practice looks like peace circles made available to non-violent defendants as an alternative to the harsh sentencing guidelines of Cook County Criminal Court. During their City Bureau Public Newsroom presentation,  Jenny Casas and Sarah Conway made clear that this is not a process designed to release the defendant from consequences or grant them full autonomy. Failing to keep the agreements made in the Community Court will mean a return to the Criminal Court. AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers prefers to view restorative justice through the lens of lifestyle and choice. This past May, Circles & Ciphers hosted a culminating event for the first session of …

Restoring Community in North Lawndale: Interview with Rufus Williams of BBF Family Services

I met Rufus Williams at “Powerful Platforms: A Community’s Call to Action,” a BBF Family Services Open House event back in June, designed to bring community awareness to Envisioning Justice and BBF’s role as one of seven Envisioning Justice hubs throughout the city. Established in 1961 as a boxing gym for boys in the neighborhood, BBF (the initials reflect its former name, Better Boys Foundation) now provides resources for children and adults in North Lawndale, an area of Chicago historically vulnerable to political and social disenfranchisement. Current BBF programs address the broad developmental, educational, and employment needs of members of the community, including those reentering society from jail or prison. Williams is President and Chief Executive Officer of BBF Family Services. BBF is housed in a modern two-story building at 15th and Pulaski, luminous on the interior, with floor-to-ceiling windows on both floors that look onto an uncovered center courtyard. At the Open House there were arts and crafts for youngsters, and a community resource room where various local groups had set up tables, providing information …

“Prisoners Are Always Resisting”: The 2018 Prison Strike

Children’s laughter bounced off the walls of the Co-Prosperity Sphere gallery as a group of about 40 people gathered for a “Day of Solidarity” on August 4 in support of an upcoming national prison strike. All afternoon, people filtered in and out as organizers from Milwaukee to Oaxaca spoke, supporting organizations sold t-shirts and zines to fund strikers’ commissary, volunteers at a letter-writing station matched attendees with incarcerated pen pals, and musicians performed. The strike, set to begin August 21 and end September 9, was called for by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an incarcerated group of prisoner rights advocates. After a riot at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina left seven inmates dead in April of this year, the group decided that they could no longer wait for the ideal conditions for a strike, as these kinds of tragedies would keep happening unless prisoners worked together. In an August 11 statement, the group wrote, “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be …

People in attendance at open community event stand with arms raised participating in a community dance.

Just A Guy In A Suit: How Circles & Ciphers Resolves Conflict With Radical Hospitality

In the fall of 2017, I began attending Rogers Park Community Peace Circle as outreach for the Kola Nut Collaborative, a timebanking initiative where people trade skills and services using time as a currency. While I had participated in other spaces employing circle facilitation, the Community Peace Circle enriched my understanding of some basic rituals associated with circle keeping including lighting a candle, introducing talking pieces, and building shared values to be held during the circle. It would be several more months before I would realize the relationship between Circles & Ciphers and the Community Peace Circle as each entity re-formed and merged under a new mission statement. This mission explains that, “Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.” While the name struck me as familiar, I was unclear about Circles & Ciphers’ history, use of peace circle facilitation or desired outcomes for …

Smiling Behind the Sun: An Interview with Larry Brent, Jr.

Libyans sometimes refer to being arrested and taken away without warning as being “taken behind the sun.” This interview series celebrates—through conversations with formerly-incarcerated artists and their allies—the ways in which an artistic, creative life can transmute the impact and redefine the legacy of an experience within the Prison Industrial Complex. For this installment, I’ve expanded the scope of the series and reached out to an artist still fighting to free himself from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Larry J. Brent, Jr. has served over twenty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, indicted by false information elicited via torture at the hands of the Chicago PD. While working to prove his innocence, Larry has made his time count: working as an artist and poet, teaching classes on subjects ranging from math to public speaking, and educating himself through programs like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Education Justice Project. I interviewed him by mail to learn more about his growth as an artist, his family ties, and his feelings on impending freedom. …

Smiling Behind the Sun: An Interview with Vincent Wade

Libyans sometimes refer to being arrested and taken away without warning as being “taken behind the sun.” This interview series celebrates—through conversations with formerly-incarcerated artists and their allies—the ways in which an artistic, creative life can transmute the impact and redefine the legacy of an experience within the Prison Industrial Complex.  In 1984, Vincent Wade was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, based on a confession tortured out of him by Chicago police detectives. He spent 31 years in state prison, teaching and working as an artist in every available medium, sharpening his skills for the day he would walk free. On August 14, 2015—years after proof of systematic torture and coercion by the Chicago Police Department was uncovered—Vincent was finally released. While groups like Chicago Torture Justice Memorials continue to fight on behalf of Chicago police torture survivors, Vincent remains focused on the thing that got him through more than three decades behind bars: his art. We sat down just south of Washington Park to talk about Vincent’s artistic mentors, his …