Mass Incarceration

Published by Young Chicago Authors, Say What magazine is developed, written and edited by a group of 12 diverse teens. Say What is a vital resource for emerging writers and a space where young people’s voices can be heard and celebrated. In addition to providing information, our mission is to create connections between young writers and the larger community of writers, activists and thinkers; to encourage youth to become active participants in documenting, critiquing and changing the communities and the world in which we live. With that in mind, we jumped at the chance to partner with Area Chicago to write a piece for this special issue. As part of our collaboration, we met with Area’s guest editor over a period of several weeks to research and discuss the issue of Mass Incarceration. Afterwards, we created a piece which, we feel, reflects the diversity of our concerns and experiences as young people. We hope that this article opens up a space for young people’s perspectives to be included on a regular basis among the pages of Area Chicago.

Mass incarceration refers to the systematic imprisonment of people, many of whom are young, poor and of color. It refers to the sweeping of communities; the snatching away of brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. It is the solidification of stereotype and second-class status. It is the theft of hope and opportunity. Over the past 30 years, the prison population in the United States has risen to over two million Americans in jail, an increase of 500 percent. Many of the people who are locked up are drug offenders, who, because of mandatory sentencing laws, are more likely to be sentenced to jail and more likely to receive longer sentences than twenty years ago.

We wonder, how are youth supposed to grow-up to be productive citizens when many of us can’t even get a good education? Or live in neighborhoods where we don’t have to fight for our lives everyday. In videos, on tv and in films, the gangsta life is glorified. These are the images we see of ourselves everyday. Is it any surprise that the images we’re fed become a self-fulfilling prophecy? But the story doesn’t begin or end here. As young writers, we know that mass incarceration starts in the minds of both policy makers and young people who are being primed for a life of crime. Because mass incarceration effects so many young people, we at Say What magazine wanted to weigh in on this issue. We believe that in our society, youth are invisible until we step outside of the boxes and cages that have been created for us.


Mass Incarceration

Imprisoned & enslaved intertwined hardships

As hearts spit acid accurately at unjust justice systems

Block watching, pop locking cops coping stalking,

As they locking up the carriers of the rock

Seeing innocent adolescence as collateral

Making sure a brother pocket or mind doesn’t get too fat so they watch our cholesterol

Give us crack weed & liquor to replace the fish and celery

Chicago popo, example of the ying & yang

Some stopping the bang

While others assist to get dividends from the slang

They pitching felonies, & we catching, steady hitting homeruns

Those bless with the melanin start with the double strike

Black & Latino alike Beaten with nights in the night by the knights of white & blue, till black & blue

Fresh out the womb & hated

Predestined to be incarcerated

This be that ideology implant like a chi chi chia

In the hood

Brothers seeing the evergreen on the other side of the fence

So they hop gates

Dodging misdemeanor

Averting eyes from the fire breathing courts

That distorts the melanin

Attract them, and then distract them from goals

Subtracting them from the blacklist

Deported to the juvenile black market

Pigment making us walking targets

To the back breakers of the afrocentric souls

Taking advantage of our lack of

Negrophiliacs Taking advantage of the media

As they drop charges like it’s hot

Think with the right and the left, notice the constant scare tactics

Using bars to scar While we’re holding wounds, searching for ease

To appease the need of band aids

But the forty isn’t the first aid

Now for shame, the attempted foreshadowing, while cats, gallowing

Realizing they can’t float with convictions on their back

So they end up back at the shallow end

See as guilty by association

So we don’t vote, avoiding associating with the nation

But incarceration is still looming

Gooning folks, just like discrimination

—Shadell Jamison


An Ounce of Prevention

Mass incarceration is a problem often overlooked. It has crept in to America’s back door, and has taken the back seat to other issues that affect our nation. But it is a problem when more than two million Americans are imprisoned and many are there for non-violent crimes. It seems that incarceration has become the cure all. Yes, drugs are a problem, but imprisoning a first time offender for a small amount of narcotics is only creating more problems. An ounce of prevention is a worth a pound of cure. The only way I can imagine solving our increasing imprisonment is to stop the problems before they bloom into to something more. Our tax dollars pay for prisoners to be clothed and fed, why can’t they be used to prevent someone from even entering the prison’s door? The system we have been using is not working. We as a nation need to fight for programs that will keep at risk youth off the streets, and truly we should take a look at ourselves. There are many American cities that provide certain citizens with inadequate housing and schooling. These two factors have been proven to produce more people who are at high risk to participate in criminal behavior. We have to begin looking at the cause of our problems and not simply lock them up and throw away the key.

—Diamond Sharp


Is It Too Late?

Good people, bad mistakes

Where does that leave America’s fate?

Left desolate behind bars,

But is that who we really are?

And why should that be the case?

We need to keep this world safe.

But we are still waiting For that day,

When all the little kids In this world

Would be able to say,

Bad mistakes will not decide my fate.

Let the minds of these

Good people with bad mistakes

Get twirled around,

And their mistakes get buried

Under the prison grounds.

So they can laugh at all the

Crooked cops and government

That refuse to smell their scent;

The ones who want them

Locked up and thrown away,

Not seen in society another day.

Make a fool out of them,

Don’t let them make a fool out of you,

Becuz then you’re gonna be

Stuck and not know

What to do.

These people’s minds

Are locked up in the streets.

No one to hear their

Cries for help.

Tick Tock they have

No time to right

Some of their wrongs.

Now here comes everyone’s

Opinions about what was

Right or wrong.

Suddenly time runs out

And the police come about

in their red/blue striped cars.

Now they’re locked behind bars

Thanks to the government’s dollars.

No one can hear those

Innocent people’s hollers.

Good people, bad mistakes.

What action should we take?

Or is it too late?

—Shontae Walker



And now I see it every day

The harsh realities surround me

The tears falling endlessly, never fading away


The world floating in a sea of gray

People wishing they could flee

And now I see it every day


People work for little pay

No one is ever really free

The tears falling endlessly, never fading away


Some people are different, but some the same

Learning how to disagree

And now I see it every day


Every night they pray

For someone to hear their plea

The tears falling endlessly, never fading away

It will never be okay

Justice in only a small degree

And now I see it every day

The tears falling endlessly, never fading away

—Tessa Catlett

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