[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the history of the world. Never before in human history have we relied so heavily on cages to guarantee our security, to make us feel safe, or to provide solutions to our suffering. The voices in this section of AREA challenge the notion that our practices of locking one another up, supply us with security, safety, or solutions to violence in our communities. The articles, maps, discussion, personal narratives, and poems in this section offer a critical assessment of the world we live in. They also offer seeds for changing that world.

Planting these seeds is nowhere more necessary than in Chicago. Illinois is at the center of the United States’ unprecedented reliance on incarceration. As quoted in Metropolis 2020’s 2006 Crime and Justice Index, at the turn of the millennium Illinois was locking up Black men for drug offenses at a rate greater than any other state. Most of these men come from and return to Chicago’s West and South Sides. The map by Nik Theodore portrays former Illinois prisoners returning to Chicago’s least resourced communities of color, with the greatest numbers entering the predominately African-American West Side. In the 60624 West Side zip code, which accounts for about 12% of the Illinois Prison population, up to a third of the residents may be locked up at any given time. The number of people locked up in this zip code alone is greater than the total number of prisoners in many countries. These figures help us to see how the acts which get designated “criminal” tend to have more to do with race, geography and class in America than they do harm, pain, or suffering.

In her powerful article about the routine rape of women prisoners in Illinois, Michelle Van Natta reveals that prison itself functions as yet another site of harm, pain, and violence. This site is sanctioned by the state, supported by public funds, and made all but invisible to the society that has the power to change it. In Chica-go, the need for security and safety in communities of color is profound, and so are the challenges that the state poses to them. Projects like call on us to deal with both state and interpersonal forms of violence, and to realize their intense relationship to one another. As many activists have learned through the efforts of groups like INCITE!, the culture of domination and control proliferated through the criminal legal system does nothing to address the root causes of domestic abuse and violence against women.

Among the many difficult questions we must ask ourselves today is: how do we do we represent the complex realties that surround the criminal legal system? In the Art and Prisons discussion, Laurie Jo Reynolds observes how social isolation and self-hatred, two facets of American culture especially prevalent among former prisoners, serve as catalysts for (re)offending. Understanding and shifting these cultural dynamics is a key part of how we can claim agency in the current moment. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of widespread imprisonment leaves us searching for the appropriate language to even explain the crisis that we are in. With well over two million people locked up in America today, predominately poor people of color—how do we articulate the nature of the crisis?

Through collaborative workshops between AREA and Young Chicago Authors (YCA) the search for the proper language to describe mass incarceration was ta-ken up by YCA’s Say What Editorial Board. In these workshops young people explored parallels like genocide, apartheid, and slavery. When Shadell Jamison writes, “Fresh out the womb and hated / Predestined to be incarcerated,” he calls on readers to think about the world we are leaving future generations. As Sarah Kanouse’s Going Downstate map suggests, whatever terms we use to understand the current moment, the mass caging practices of American society are at once new and familiar. While the life course of both individuals and communities can seem predetermined, we must do all we can to change the destiny of futures in Chicago.


—Criminal Justice

—Prisoner Re-entry

—Mass Incarceration

Classroom Questions

—What is the relationship between high-incarceration areas like Chicago’s Westside and downstate prison towns?

—What are some implications of the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the history of the world?

—How do the odds that you will be locked up change depending on the color of your skin, how much money you have, or where you live?


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