Category: Writing by Prisoners

Sep 09 2014

Upcoming Event Series: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation

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A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

Read more »

Jun 18 2014

Poem of the Day: I Am Human

I Am Human
by Tammica Summers

I am an inmate
The result of a mistake
But I am human first

This is not my fate
The effects make me shake
But it could always be worse

I am real just like you
Even though I wear blue
I have eyes I can see
My soul cries and my spirit is free

I am just as human as you are
It might be a stretch of your imagination
But can you try to reach that far?

I bleed like every human does
And sometimes I cry just because

Some days I have are good
And some days are bad
Some days I wish I could
Have a better life than what I had

I am an inmate
But I am human like you
I am now property of the state
But was once free like you

I am not an animal in the zoo
I am human just like you
When I’m scared I long to be held
And in so many ways I am frail

Man has sentenced me to shame
And put me in this Hell
And branded with this name
That you think you know so well

But do you really know me?
I’ve been conveniently moved from society
Forced into this virtual reality
But until I die I will always be
A human like you — part of humanity

Source: Bound Struggles, Number Seven (Chicago Books to Women in Prison)

Jun 08 2014

Poem of the Day: Why I Cry

Why I Cry
by Sharee M (Free Write Jail Arts Program)

I cry because so many thoughts
go through my mind.
I cry when I feel that I have been mistreated
I cry so that someone could come and comfort me
I cry so that things could go my way
I cry when I feel that everything’s over
I cry when I think about what I should have done
instead of doing time
I cry for a second chance
so that I could be something
I cry when I think about
when would I see my family again
I cry because I have not found myself
I cry for the family who lost a loved one
I cry for not going with my first mind, the right one
I cry because bricks surround me
I cry because I am in a box
I cry because I am not free

(Source: Big Dream I’m Chasing, Free Write Jail Arts Anthology Vol 6)

May 14 2014

Preview: No Selves to Defend – Marissa Alexander & A Legacy of Criminalizing Women of Color for Self-Defense

I’ve hinted that I was working on an exciting project (one of a few). Well last week, the final draft went to the printer, today I officially approved the proof and in a couple of weeks a limited edition of 150 copies of “No Selves to Defend: A Legacy of Criminalizing Women of Color for Self Defense” will be available for purchase. All proceeds will go to support Marissa Alexander’s Legal Defense.

writer, Mychal Denzel Smith; artist, Molly Crabapple

writer, Mychal Denzel Smith; artist, Molly Crabapple

Over a hundred years ago, in 1913, Mary Wilson was charged with murder. She was arrested in February in San Antonio, Texas for killing a trooper named Olaf Olson. The authorities say that she confessed. Mary was held without bail. She said that the soldier threatened her. She tried to flee to a friend’s home but Olson followed her and he grabbed her. Mary was scared. She thought that “he intended to do her bodily injury.” Mary “drew a revolver and shot him.” It was self-defense. But she was caged because she was black and a woman living in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. For a black woman, mere flesh is not a self. And for centuries, black women have had no selves to defend.

writer, Victoria Law; artist, Rachel Galindo

writer, Victoria Law; artist, Rachel Galindo

The Mary Wilson incident is documented by Rev. Elijah Clarence Branch in a book titled “Judge Lynch’s Court in America.” History is replete with stories of women (particularly of color) who were precluded from invoking self-defense in the face of violence. In fact, too many have been and are criminalized for protecting themselves. Marissa Alexander’s story is part of this unfortunate and unjust legacy.

writer, William C. Anderson; artist, Micah Bazant

writer, William C. Anderson; artist, Micah Bazant

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May 12 2014

Guest Post: EITHER/OR by Dustin Sherwood Clay

Note from Dustin: I am sending you an essay for your blog. Maybe someone will find themselves in this story and speak up.

Note from Prison Culture: I met Dustin in a class that I taught at Stateville Prison a couple of weeks ago. I received a letter from him a few days ago that included his essay “Either/Or.” I am happy to publish it here. If anyone would like to write to Dustin about his story. He can be reached at:
Dustin Sherwood Clay
Stateville Prison
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

You can also leave your comments below and I will make sure that they get to Dustin.

EITHER/OR by Dustin Sherwood Clay

There was a creek on my block in Bellwood that snaked under the street and exposed itself where lots for homes should have been. It is full two stories down to water level. It’s gated but gates are little hindrance to the thought of adventure. In the daytime the creek held mystery. Both slopes were steep and filled with brush, like most scenes in Jason movies. The thought of white water rafting under streets on the gentle currents of a slow moving creek seemed more exciting than being tall enough for the big boy roller coasters at Six Flags.

rafting David got his hands on a blue hard plastic raft with two yellow hard plastic ores. The mission (and we chose to accept it) was to make sure no parent could see us sneak the raft up and over the gate and ease it down the slope to navigate the great unknown. We were pretty sure the raft was made for one but me, David and my brother was kids. Surely together we couldn’t exceed the weight of an adult. David hid the raft in his garage. My brother and I put ourselves in charge of the ores. We hid them in our living room behind our Dad’s chair. Hiding it in plain sight was not the plan, we actually thought they were hidden.

It was still a few days until the weekend. We agreed we needed a full day to explore the water. Christopher Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria had to feel like a man with vision. There’s nothing like it, vision makes you find a way out of no way. I can’t even swim but dreams of the water felt like a great escape.

Me and my brother slept upstairs in a split level house next to our baby sister’s room. Our parents took over the guest room downstairs. Sometimes they would fight. Once the police were called. In ’83 domestic violence calls were the shortest investigation ever. If the woman pressed charges the man would be home in an hour minus 50 bucks with that being cause for another ass whoppin. If threat of arrest was realized, but all together avoided, it had a calming effect on the situation. Most times my brother and I didn’t leave our room. But the tones of hostility captured our attention like lassos in Dad’s old westerns. When that hostility flows out of the mouths that speak love to us, my heart drops.

One night we heard the boom of our Mother being knocked up against a wall. This fight was different. The tussling sounded desperate. I followed my brother’s lead. He flew out the bed, down the stairs with me and our baby sister in tow. My father was hunched over our Mother who was crouched down up against the dresser by the door of their bedroom. Dad’s eyes were intense and bloodshot, nose flaring, jaw clenched. His arms seemed even more massive, up in the air ready to strike again with the yellow hard plastic ore in his hands. I froze. I heard my brother screaming for my Dad to stop, my little sister screamed. I said NOTHING.

I can count on one hand how many times I heard my Mother use bad words in my whole life, this day being the first. At that moment she told my father, “You was out getting pussy.” That threw me. My Dad was slapped with rage, swinging the ore as if trying to erase those words from her lips. Mom used her full strength to block each blow while sobbing. A heavy humming sob that seemed to come more through her, than from her, from another dimension. My memory shuts off here like broken film in a projector. Write, missing reel here.

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Mar 12 2014

Poem of the Day: No Lady by Anonymous

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García.    Smithsonian American Art Museum

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García. Smithsonian American Art Museum

No Lady
Prison didn’t improve me none.
There was ten of us girls in the county jail
five white, five black awaitin’ trial for sellin shit.
The white girls, they all on probation.
Us black girls, we all go to Dwight. Me, three months gone.
An I ask myself sittin on them concrete benches in the county.
How come? How come me an my sisters goin to jail
An the white girls goin back to college?
Their mothers come in here an weep — they get probation.
My mama come in here – nose spread all over her face — she weepin too
But I goin to Dwight
An I think about that — But I don’t come up with no answers.
Ain’t got no money for a lawyer.
Hell, I couldn’t even make bail.
Met the defender five minutes before my trial
An I done what he said. Didn’t seem like no trial to me, not like T.V.
I didn’t understand none of it.
Six months to a year they give me…
They ride us out there in a bus.
See my playin’ the game — goin to charm class an the body
dynamics, (to learn my Feminine Role)
An I take keypunchin, an I do real well.
My boyfriend, he come to see me twice, and then he stop comin’
An when I have the baby, I give it up.
Weren’t nothin else for me to do.
They give me twenty-five dollar when I get outta there
An I wearin my winter clothes in July, an everyone knows where I comin from
Six month I try to find a job, make it straight.
But the man who give the job, he say I flunk that test
Sheeit man, I didn’t flunk that test.
You think I’m a criminal. I done my time, but you ain’t reclassified me.
I always be a criminal to you…
One of the counselors say I “mentally ill,” I needs treatment.
Two hours a week they give me group therapy.
The other hundred and fifteen, they lock me up — like an animal.
An I ain’t got no neurosis noways.
Sheeit, it’s this place make you ill…
Other night, I took sick with the cramps;
There weren’t no doctor ’til mornin.
He poke me in the sore spot an say,
“Girl — You jus wanna go to the hospital. Get you some tea an toast.”
Tea an toast!
My girlfriend — she die of diabetes, before they do anythin for her.
She come outta here in a box. Looks like it won’t be no different for me.
That’s how it is, Lady.
No. Prison didn’t improve me none.

— anonymous, reprinted from The Chicago Seed (1981).

Feb 23 2014

No Way Out by Dollree Mapp

I’ve written about Dollree Mapp here in the past. Today, I wanted to share more of her prison writing.

No Way Out [Source: Off Our Backs, February 1979]

On entering Bedford’s prison, she sought an interview with the Warden. After knocking lightly on the door which read”ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE” — and answer, she cautiously turned the knob and the door opened to another door which read, “RIGHT” or “LEFT.” Believing in righteousness, she chose the door marked “RIGHT.” Through that door there were two other doors which read “WARDEN” or “ASSISTANT WARDEN.” Wanting to fully understand what she would be confronted with while in prison, she naturally chose the door marked “Warden.” Upon entering that door through dismay, she ran smack into two more doors which read “PUNITIVE” or “REHABILITATION.” Now, thoroughly confused, and stopping to distinguish between the two doors, she reluctantly chose the door marked “REHABILITATION” as she remembered the pompous judge telling her she needed to be rehabilitated.

WOW! she thought, “At last, I’ve made it, no more doors.” When she entered the “REHABILITATION” door, feeling that the Warden would let her know what her “RIGHTS” were, there were once again two more doors which read “BLACK” or “WHITE.” EUREKA! she shouted. Being Black, she hurried to the door marked “BLACK” thinking that all her questions would be answered and she would let the Warden know what she wanted. Upon entering the door marked “BLACK,” she fell thirteen stories to her DEATH!

by dollree mapp

Jan 28 2014

Poem of the Day: Clandestine Kisses

Clandestine Kisses
by Marilyn Buck

for Linda and her lover

blooming on lips
which have already spoken
and now await
stolen clandestine kisses

A prisoner kisses
she is defiant
she breaks the rules
she traffics in contraband women’s kisses.

A crime wave of kisses
Bitter sweet sensuality
flouting women-hating satraps
in their prison fiefdoms
that love
cannot be arrested.

1990, Washington, D.C. Jail

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Nov 12 2013

Poem of the Day: Son

By Jessica Muniz J
From recent issue of Captured Words

When I think of you,
I think of your eyes,
How they are sparkling pools of blue,
That always calm me when I see you.
When I think of you,
I think to myself how much strength you give me,
You are my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,
Just knowing that you are waiting for me
To be home,
Helps me to carry on.
Ever since that day you left,
Loneliness had taken its toll.
You are a very special part of my life,
A life that has had its twists and turns,
I know I have missed out on a lot,
But somehow I know that I will be given another chance,
To prove that I really am a wonderful mom.
When I think of you, Son,
You lift up my spirits.
So many of my smiles depend on you.
You bring me so much happiness,
I hope you will never forget,
Not even for a single day,
How wonderful you are to me.
When I think of you, Julian,
I am sorry that I hurt you,
It’s something I must live with every day.
I never meant to do those things to you.
I want to show you a side of me you do not know.
Julian, my Son, you are my reason for all that I do.