William, 58

William, 58

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Meet William…

What on earth would make this young person, with so much life and joy ahead of her, want to keep in contact with someone like me?

William, 58
Incarcerated: 35 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL

I met a young volunteer tutor named Annie during my final quarter in Northwestern’s Degree program here. Her forte was all things math related, and since my final course was psychology, she and I rarely interacted. We would smile and greet one another when our paths crossed, but we had almost zero instances of substantive discourse. On the last day of her tenure here, Annie and I sat across from one another, and talked. I learned how genuinely kind, empathetic and bright she was. I lamented that I wished we’d made time to talk sooner, and we’d had the opportunity to talk more often. To my surprise Annie replied, “I’m going to reach out to you William, this won’t be the last time we speak.” I smiled and nodded, but to be honest, I did not take her seriously. What on earth would make this young person, with so much life and joy ahead of her, want to keep in contact with someone like me? You see, I was rightfully convicted of first degree murder, sent to Death Row, had my sentence commuted to Life Without Parole, and have been locked up a total of 35 years of my life! So why would Annie want to know me beyond her duties as a tutor? Then, out of the Blue, I get a new contact alert on my prison issued tablet. Annie and I have built a symbiotic relationship of trust, honesty, respect and mutual encouragement. I give her counsel about boys and life, she teaches me through poems about the world and being human in this new and scary world. I’ve been absent for over three decades. I’ve told Annie in vivid detail, all about my past, the harm I’ve endured, and the harm I’ve unleashed on the world when I walked in pain, ignorance and addiction. Initially, I think I did it to shock her, may be run her away; but she’s stuck by me, saw me not for who I was, and what I’d done; but for who I am now, and the gifts I can give to the world in my healed and self-actualized state. Despite all the odds, I found a friend, I gained acceptance, and for someone I least expected it to come from. Picture is of William and a reporter from PBS – he was featured in a story on bringing back elder parole to Illinois.

Shawn, 46

Meet Shawn…

I’ve been known As “R227**” staff and prison officials only see me as a number.

Shawn, 46
Incarcerated: 18 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL

I’ve been known as “R227**” staff and prison officials only see me as a number. Even though I have changed my life around completely, they still see the person that I once was. Instead of looking at me for the man that I am today, they see the uniform I wear, and the reason why I’m wearing it. I’ve never had anyone see me for who I am until I met this lady named Jennifer Lackey. She is a philosophy professor from Northwestern University and founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education program” it offers bachelor degrees to incarcerated individuals. She welcomed me into the college community. It sees incarcerated people for more than just the uniform we wear. She treated me with dignity and respect. Someone worthy of deserving it. For the first time in a long time, someone saw me for who I really am. She accepted me into the college program, giving me the chance to earn a Northwestern Bachelor’s Degree. I’m thankful for professor Lackey, she restored my faith in people. She’s also giving me a renewed purpose in life, And I can never thank her enough.

Taki, 45

Taki, 45

Meet Taki…

I am struggling to receive love because it falls way short of what defines love for me. This is where hard work and growth meet.

Taki, 45
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois

I have learned alot about love. I have learned it is an action word. I can’t just say that I love you, I have to show you! Love is unconditional. Even if you can’t have a relationship with someone, you can still love them. It is selfless, pure, kind, honest and true. I have been sharing this insight with my brothers and family, and I thought I could share this here and really be impactful. For the incarcerated, we find it very difficult to believe people when they say that they love us, when their actions don’t match what we believe love looks like. This stresses us out and can cause us to ruin relationships we should cherish. The lesson I learned is this: Everyone’s life circumstances and experiences have shaped us, and ultimately help to formulate how we view love. It is not that people we deal with do not love us, they just do not understand love as we do, because we’ve had different experiences and concepts of what love is!

For those of us incarcerated, especially those of us who have been gone for a long time, we appreciate things on a much more intensive level than most human beings. Our deprivation of not having the things that we want so much causes us to hold, treasure, value, and love things on a much deeper level than the average human being. Our love is intense. To hold people who haven’t been shaped by the same experiences as us, to our standards of love, isn’t fair to them, or to ourselves. We have to learn how to love and be loved from the place in which that love resides. I am struggling to receive love because it falls way short of what defines love for me. This is where hard work and growth meet. Now I have to do the necessary work so I can get to a place of peace. Sharing with you has already helped me through my personal revelation, thank you.

Marshawn, 37

Marshawn, 37

Meet Marshawn…

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse.

Marshawn, 37
Incarcerated: 15 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, IL

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse. I haven’t always had hope. Prison is a very dark place and can suck the life out of you. For the majority of these 15 years, I’ve dwelled on my past, wishing I had listened to people. That I’d done things differently. Constantly thinking of my past has held me back from progressing  and has led me to make some poor decisions. Today, I try to take it one day at a time focusing more on the things that can make me better and have a more positive future! I now see light at the end of the tunnel. So many things are changing in the prison system. People are going home now, which I didn’t see as much in the beginning. It helps me visualize being freed, as well as my family, who have stuck by my side. They have given me the push when needed, this place is hard and distractions are everywhere. God is still giving me the opportunity to breathe, for that I put my best foot forward and continue to fight this fight to the end! 

Kenneth, 69

Kenneth, 69

Meet Kenneth…

I want people to read my introduction to know I am not my past. That I am constantly evolving.

Incarcerated: 23 years

Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois

Everyone calls me Aranyah (which means the Covering of YAH). I am one of three sons, one deceased, the other I’ve been estranged from for over twenty five years. Both of my parents are also deceased. I want people to read my introduction to know I am not my past. That I am constantly evolving. That I’m an artist of over thirty plus years. A writer and poet over the last several years, which started at the prompting of my son, who is also incarcerated, to join a writing class, so he and I could spend more time together. In our writing class I met a professor Andrew McKenna, who had recently retired from Loyola University and who changed my life. He opened my eyes to all types of literature that would speak of issues that are still relevant today. Authors such as George Orwell, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to name a few. These authors have influenced me to write about social issues, the marginalization of mass incarceration. Line paper became my new canvas, like painting, it allowed me to correct the narratives so falsely presented to the public about people in custody. My stories are filled with vivid color and emotions, and the reality of the perils of doing time. Its foundation is firmly set on the pillars of integrity and truth. I have worked hard to share stories that seek to chain the moral compass that has been pointed in the direction of forget them, just lock them up and throw away the key, to a narrative of forgiveness, thoughts of redemption and restorative justice. My prayer is to reconnect in some way that is helpful, motivating and encouraging and that will create a space of Shalom. What I’ve learned is that writing is therapeutic and I just want people to join in the conversation. 

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