After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
I haven’t seen my friends Benard McKinley and Corzell Cole since the first stay-at-home orders of March 2020. To be fair, I haven’t seen a lot of people I consider friends since then, but unlike my former classmates or coworkers, my separation from Bernard and Corzell is state-mandated. They’ve both been on lockdown since before my third birthday.
Corzell has been incarcerated since 2002 on a charge of first-degree murder. The thing is, he didn’t actually kill anyone. He was driving when his passenger opened fire and killed someone they had beef with. The shooter would end up being convicted of a lesser crime than Corzell—and is free today—while Corzell has 30 more years left on his 50-year sentence. Corzell’s sentence is a product of Illinois’s accountability law, which allows a person to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a crime they did not commit or even plan, agree, or intend to commit—and sometimes at which they were not even present.
Benard has been locked up since 2001, when he was just 16 years old. In 2004, Cook County, Chicago judge Kenneth J. Wadas sentenced him to 100 years in prison for murder, more than double the usual punishment for the crime. Throughout the trial, Wadas—who is still on the bench—employed racist stereotypes and fear-mongering tactics about Black children, using Benard as a scapegoat, he said, to deter others from committing similar crimes. In the past seven years, Wadas’s decisions have been reversed more than 25 times, nearly five times the average of other criminal judges in Cook County. Although my brother, Benard, isn’t one of those reversals, appellate court judges reduced his sentence last year. He’ll be home before the decade is over.
I met them both through my former university’s first Inside-Out class at Stateville Correctional Center, Illinois’s highest-security prison. Our class consisted of 10 “outside” students from my university and 10 “inside” students from Stateville. I was the only Black man from the outside, while Black men made up 80% of Stateville students. All 20 of us came from wildly different backgrounds, but we were tethered together by two powerful industries: the Illinois Department of Corrections and Northwestern University, both of which have multibillion dollar annual operating budgets—one to incarcerate 40,000 people and the other to educate 21,000 people.
I came into the experience with the belief that prisons shouldn’t exist, and my first real experience inside of one did nothing but confirm this. There is a world beyond incarceration, and I believe our existence depends on it. As I sat with my peers, some of whom were convicted of violent and deadly crimes, I was reaffirmed in my position that no one is just the “crime” or “mistake” that they’ve committed. The circumstances that put the inside students into prison—their race, class, and crimes committed—may have looked vastly different on paper, but they were all born from a world that didn’t care about the outcomes of their lives. It confirmed to me that the social construction of “crime” was really the result of a society that made poverty, despair, and helplessness an integral part of its DNA.
Although I had already believed all of this to be true, seeing it and learning it from people I began to care about broke me at times. On multiple occasions, I fought back tears as Corzell, who hadn’t been physically present in his son’s life for 20 years, told me that every time he looked at me, he saw his own child, with whom he was longing to be outside of the prison’s walls. I struggled to respond to another man, the same age as my mother, who told me that he looked up to me for making something of myself by attending college. I wanted to tell him that in a country built on inequality, me getting the chance to go to college was dependent on other people being locked in cages.
There is a world beyond incarceration, and I believe our existence depends on it.
As James Baldwin, one of the great American writers, eloquently outlined in 1972, once America “abolished” chattel slavery and Black people were “no longer a source of wealth,” the nation was lost—until it realized how it could use the prison system. The country, he said, saw that it could use prisons for “public comfort,” as a way to once again disappear and exploit whole populations of people, this time under the cloak of “safe streets.”
The prison population began to grow in the 1970s as politicians from both parties used racist rhetoric to push punitive policies, legitimize the prison system, and get “tough on crime.” When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, America’s prison population was 330,000; when he left office eight years later, it was 630,000. Incarceration rates grew in every state—liberal, conservative, urban, and rural—but it hit Black communities and growing Latine communities the hardest. For white males, the chance of being incarcerated during their lifetimes grew by 80% during that decade, while the same figure for Latine males and Black males grew by roughly 170% and 120% respectively.
The 1994 Crime Bill, supported by our current president Joe Biden, bloated the system again, giving states more money to incarcerate. As a result, another rise in incarceration took place: 50% by the decade’s conclusion. As all of this was going on, “crime” rates in the U.S. drastically declined—and they’ve been declining ever since. But the prison population has continued to rise, feeding the idea that incarceration is keeping us safer (even though researchers dispute that incarceration was a driving factor in the crime decline). The prison system is now embedded into the country’s structure, propping up whole industries and millions of jobs. Since Baldwin first hypothesized America’s future in 1972, the country’s incarceration rate has grown by 312%.
In a country built on inequality, me getting the chance to go to college was dependent on other people being locked in cages.
Huey P. Newton, the late revolutionary and founder of the Black Panther Party, spoke regularly of the “unreality” of prisons: that the supposed function of prisons—keeping people safe—is an illusion created to maintain a society dependent on exploitation, harm, and isolation. He explained that the forms of violence and “crime” that the prison system was purportedly solving were in reality maintained and perpetuated by the system.
This truth has been obscured for decades in America through the discourse of “reform.” Reform is the idea that we can always make something better without giving up our current ways of life. In the foundational text Are Prisons Obsolete?, famed community organizer and activist Angela Davis points out the hypocrisy of prison reform. She uses prison reform as an example of our widespread naturalization of the systems and institutions that are tainting our lives: today, we can see that with the stalemate over police funding, the idiocy of doubling down on fossil fuel use, and our forever wars in the Middle East. In the case of prisons, Davis explains that movements that rely exclusively on reform help to produce the idea that nothing lies beyond the prison.
Although there is value in some immediate reforms, such as the curbing of sexual abuse, medical neglect, and toxic living quarters, movements towards decarceration tend to be marginalized when reform takes center stage. Prisons are then treated as if they exist within a vacuum in which issues inside and outside of prison are driven by different factors. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. A nicer prison won’t make our streets safer, our children educated, or our soil and food healthier—in reality, it works to do the complete opposite. It makes the prison seem “more humane,” continuing to hide its reality from the public and further embedding it in our way of life.
Even if incarceration were about rehabilitation—which I’d argue it’s not— the structuring of prisons makes that goal nearly impossible. Being locked in a cage within a fortress hundreds of miles away from your home in an often environmentally toxic location makes it difficult for someone to improve their life or repent for any harmful deed.
A world beyond incarceration depends on the ideas of accountability, responsibility, and the desire to transform our world. As my family Benard told me earlier this year, “A world without incarceration means a world that cares about their people and helps in their healing.”
Investing in someone’s healing over their punishment also means being okay with some conflicts going unresolved—something we’ve already accepted by our willingness to lock people in cages rather than care for them as human beings. Moving beyond a dependence on punishment is something we struggle to imagine. But this struggle becomes much easier to bear when we acknowledge that most people in prisons have been harmed themselves. More than half of people assigned female at birth and nearly one-fifth of people assigned male at birth who are incarcerated in the U.S. have reported being physically or sexually abused as a child and 80% of people report suffering from either drug addiction or mental illness. As Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice—an organization that develops non-carceral responses to violence—has said, “No one enters violence for the first time having committed it.”
Acknowledging this allows us to go beyond wanting someone to experience punishment to wanting someone to take responsibility for their actions. So much of our acceptance of incarceration stems from the emotional satisfaction and joy of seeing someone who caused harm—sometimes irreversible harm—being harmed themselves. But what if we turned the sites of incarceration—jails, prisons, and detention centers—into sites and movements of collective joy and healing?
What if we turned the sites of incarceration into sites of collective joy and healing?
We do this by tearing down the walls and investing in communities: putting the nearly $100 billion of federal money and the tens of billions of local and state dollars spent on prisons every year into accessible education without police in schools, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and job creation for those most vulnerable. We give people the resources and support they need long before the hypothetical moment when they “mess up.” And when we can’t eradicate harm, we create a better way to address said issues based on reconciliation rather than vengeance.
Stateville Correctional, whose residents make up around 15% of the population of its home city, sits on a total of 2,264 acres of land, siloed off from the surrounding agricultural community of Will County by a 33-foot wall. Roughly 40% of the county’s land is used for farming, an act of rejuvenation and sustenance—but Stateville is defined by its concrete walls.
There is a reason why prisons are created to offer an unnatural experience: land is a healer. The alienation from land and greenspace reflects the realities that exacerbate conflict and helplessness in the first place: a lack of safe outdoor spaces, unhealthy foods, and restricted movement, to name a few. It prevents us from having a healthy world, too. A 2020 study on how mass incarceration contributes to climate change found that growing incarceration rates are correlated with increases in industrial emissions and the use of toxic chemicals because of the expansion of industrial prison supply manufacturing operations.
What if we rid the world of these concrete behemoths and replaced them with the actual practices that address wrongdoings? Things like transformative justice centers, community farms, park and gym spaces, non-carceral mental health and therapy institutions, low-barrier drug treatment centers, health care clinics, and cooperative living spaces.
This act of turning sites of incarceration into sites of abundance is about investing in both an individual’s healing and our world’s healing, as Benard explained to me. “This level of investment into the people,” he told me, “will prevent those from feeling like outcasts and more willing to work on bettering themselves, which benefits both them and the community as a whole.” It creates a place where wrongdoers and survivors could reconcile the disruption in their lives together while all their needs are met. It offers real justice to everyone involved, giving them the ability to examine and address the individual and the societal root causes that led to the incident.
Reconnecting to the land as a community—farming, exercising, congregating—would feed our souls, our minds, and our bodies in a radical act of care. It would offer the practical skills needed to survive in this world and a reprieve from the forces that fill prisons: poverty and hatred. Picture this: a perpetrator and a survivor tending to the land together as they talk through the moment of harm. They share their stories and what put them in the moment in the first place. Alongside them is a dedicated and consensually agreed-upon facilitator who guides the conversation, giving the survivor options to decide what will help them in their feeling of safety and transition. As everyone involved heals and grows in community, the land is offered a chance to heal, too. Everyone and everything begins to be reconnected with the natural forces of life and rejuvenation.
When you think about it, it really is simple. We all cause harm. We can also all commit to investing in each other’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Harm and conflict are inevitable parts of humanity, but prisons don’t have to be.
Mr. Wash, whose full name is Fulton Leroy Washington, uses his art to express the pain and longing of life in prison. “Deteriorating” is a self-portrait, in which his cracks in his skin take the shape of the U.S. and Africa. In 1997, Mr. Wash was wrongfully convicted of three nonviolent drug offenses and sentenced to life in prison. He served 21 years behind bars, only released in 2016 when then-President Barack Obama granted him clemency. Now, he serves as a fierce advocate against prisons.