Reflections on Three Workshops About Incarceration

Since June 2013, I have been doing an internship with Project NIA’s founder, Mariame Kaba, on writing and illustrating a children’s book for kids with incarcerated parents. Project NIA’s mission is to reduce our society’s reliance on arrest, detention and incarceration when addressing youth crime by providing opportunities for all of us to see that there are alternatives to punishment, and that prisons don’t work in rehabilitating a person.

As part of my internship, I attended an eight-week seminar in Chicago conducted by the PIC Teaching Collective to learn about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and all of the ways that it affects our society. I also learned from these meetings that being aware of my privilege is so important in helping me understand how the systems that we live in work, how they don’t work, and who they do and don’t work for.

It was hard at first for me to recognize my own privilege because although I have white skin, I come from a large Mexican immigrant family based in Pilsen. But police never target me as a threat just for walking down the street. I don’t get harassed or followed in stores. My appearance is agreeable to the people and the laws that govern much of our society, and so it’s just easier for me to get by, to be accepted. And since my parents sent me to competitive schools outside of the neighborhood, I have benefited from educational privilege that includes attending RISD, an elite art school. I learned about the school to prison pipeline from a seminar, not from my own life experience.

After the summer PIC seminar I conducted a short workshop for children at the Village Leadership Academy (VLA), a school located in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago that teaches K–7th grade about social justice and responsibility as part of their curriculum. Mariame Kaba helped design the workshop, which started with two videos: one of photographer Richard Ross, who spent 24 hours in isolation and created a time-lapse with photos he took every seven seconds, and another of Quabeeny Daniels, a young Black man and a member of Chain Reaction (a project that aims to inform others about alternatives to calling the police). Daniels talked about how being targeted by the police made him feel that people believed the youth in his community were intrinsically bad and feared. The workshop introduced some of the factors in our society that lead to the incarceration of children; we also spoke about alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice, peace circles, and the work that Project NIA does to end youth incarceration. I’ve only just begun to learn about my own privilege and my place in the PIC, so it was with a lot of nervousness that I accepted the challenge to try and explain to these kids what this system is like, and what it feels like to be an incarcerated young person.

I found it difficult to explain the prison system, the school-to-prison pipeline, or zero-tolerance policies without using any of the words we normally use as adults when we talk about these things. Some of the older kids were incredibly well versed, asking questions like “I thought under the universal declaration of human rights, everyone got a lawyer and was innocent until guilty.” The kindergarteners struggled to understand what prison meant.

Drawing by Rachel Washington

Drawing by Rachel Washington

I found myself explaining things like this, in order to make it more understandable: Do you think that a child who does something wrong, like gets in a fight at school, should be arrested and sent to jail? Or do you think they should have someone to talk to them and sit down and talk with the person they fought with and find a way to make both people feel healed? Obviously, the majority chose the latter. At the end of the discussion, I asked the children to try and imagine what it would be like to be ten years old and locked up in jail, or thirteen years old and locked up in prison. What would it feel like? Look like? Their responses were beautiful, and I’ve compiled and made them available online here: www.imagineprison.tumblr.com.

When I was collecting the drawings and getting ready to leave, some girls crowded around me to talk to me about what was in their drawings, explaining what each thing was and why they drew it. When I asked them if they had learned anything, all of them said yes, except one girl who, almost defiantly, said no. I asked her, “Why not?” And she responded, “Because a man who killed my Daddy is in prison and that’s not right.” It hurt my heart to hear her say that, and all I could think to say was, “Yeah, that’s not right.” Her words made me think about the options I had given them, and how children’s lives teach us that reality is not as simple as that. Given that I have never had to live through such experiences, how could I explain to a little girl that the man who killed her father deserves to have a chance to make things right, and not just be punished and locked away? The work of Project NIA is precisely to create alternatives, other models of justice and harm reduction that young people can see and practice in their own life.

I later conducted a workshop through the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) Connections Program. The women I met were warm, kind, thoughtful and so strong. I couldn’t even imagine how strong they were. Two of the women lamented about how cold they felt while they were held in Cook County Department of Corrections. As one woman explained—“It’s so cold, I can’t even describe it. It makes you feel like you’re so alone in the universe.” This is the drawing she made.

Once again I became aware of my privilege as I learned so much from the women in this workshop. I was shocked when they talked about how living was almost easier for them while they were in prison. As one woman explained, the people who were most affected by her incarceration were her family, children, and loved ones.

 Me and my kids, we try hard. We talk about my incarceration every blue moon, I ask them questions just to make sure they’re not holding resentment, you know, because it was harder on them… It was easier for me. I was just sitting over here, just doing some time, and I was fed, I was given all of my meals and I had a few snacks here and there, and my clothes were clean. But the meanwhile, the children are all out there and somebody else has to worry about, Okay, how am I gonna feed them? How am I gonna do this for them? How am I gonna get them to the doctor? How am I gonna get this, this, that. How am I gonna pay these bills and all of that?”

This participant also talked about how her children were uprooted from their home in Will County and moved to Chicago to live with her friend who graciously took them in. Today she lives with her children in a transitional house.

I went through so much just to be here today. Today is not a school day, so that means my children are at home from school. House rules state that . . . you can’t leave your children, you have to take your children wherever you go, and I didn’t have bus fare for them to get here . . . My oldest daughter is fourteen so I don’t really call that unsupervised. But, I took a write up today just to be here. You know, ’cause I had to cancel out the last one ’cause my daughter was sick. It’s just so much it seem like you stretched to the limit and the more you try the deeper in the hole you get, it’s like nothing is ever good enough. Most days I feel like just giving up, like, whatever. I do. Most days I feel like it.”

The idea of support and mentorship came up a lot at the next workshop, an event organized by Mariame Kaba about explaining jail and prison to children with incarcerated loved ones. One woman wondered what the Department of Child and Family Services could do to assist families. Another responded, saying:

We think in terms of the whole family, but you know the person who’s most at risk is that child, and they can assist one thing—by providing counseling to the children. Most children whose parents have been incarcerated never get counseling. Never. And they need that to help them, first of all, learn to grieve. ’Cause they try to cover it up so they don’t want anyone to know and you can understand that. But then once they understand and grieve they also need to be able to cope with the situation. They need counseling.”

Again and again, the women encouraged each other to seek help, to seek counseling. To learn how to forgive their parents and loved ones for what was not given to them. To a woman who said she felt nothing for either of her parents, a mentor and formerly incarcerated mother replied:

It’s called being emotionally detached. And often times we have to look at our parents and maybe what they have gone through, ’cause they can’t give what they don’t have. No matter how much we expect it as a mother. Because I looked at me—I had my first child at age fifteen. Now at age fifteen my mother had not raised me, my grandmother raised me. At age fifteen I was feeling abandoned, I was feeling unloved, I went to live with my mother probably around the age of thirteen. Never felt that I fitted back into the realm of that family. All my other sisters and brothers were living with her. I’m the oldest of the seven, I had never. And I carried those feelings with me for so long.

“I was emotionally detached from my first child because I felt like my mother owed it to me to raise him, like she didn’t raise me. And we go through all these different kind of family dynamics and stuff, but it just comes. It’s that forgiving, as somebody just said, and accepting it and letting them be who they are. Because if she didn’t give love and didn’t show love it’s ’cause it probably wasn’t shown or given to her.

Remember that counseling only helps you put those feelings into a different perspective so that you could move forward in your life. Because even just sitting here hearing you, you know it makes you really complacent in life, you have so much to offer and so much to give. It’s okay if you let that stuff out.”

I barely said anything during both of these workshops. I sat there and I listened, and I watched as women shared their fears, their hopes and dreams for their children, and for themselves. Every woman in some way acted as a mentor to every other woman there just by sharing her story and by being an example of what was possible.

I feel compelled to listen and to make. I don’t know what the struggles that these women are going through are like. I’ve never lived it. But I do love to draw, and I love to tell stories and teach art. I want to encourage people to hear every voice of their communities, not just the ones with the most access to the microphone. I want to hear those voices and learn from them too.