During a forum held July 3 at Malcolm X College, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th), activists and formerly incarcerated individuals addressed some of the injustices in the criminal justice system. The forum was designed to commemorate Illinois Citizens Re-entry Day, which was designated by the Illinois House of Representatives to spread awareness about the importance of addressing prisoner reentry. 

As part of the event, Ford screened “When They See Us,” the Netflix docudrama about the plight of the Central Park 5, now known as the Exonerated 5. The five men, who were teenagers at the time, were convicted of raping and assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989 All of them served time in juvenile detention facilities or prison before they were exonerated by DNA results and a voluntary confession delivered by the actual attacker. 

Many of the people who spoke during the event talked about the mental and physical trauma they endured in prison, especially while in solitary confinement. They reported post-traumatic symptoms — from flashbacks on hearing the jingling of keys to continuing difficulties related to family and friends.

Maximo Cerda, a street interventionist with BUILD and former gang member, was imprisoned between the ages of 16 and 25. He also spent five years in solitary.

“There’s nothing corrective about the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Cerda said. “It was my brothers in prison that helped me get rehabilitated. For some people, it’s religion. In my case, cultural awareness helped me. My slogan is ‘cultura cura,’ or ‘culture heals.'”

Alan Mills, the executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, showed photos of solitary cells in Menard Prison. Conditions have not changed since then, he said. 

The cells are long, narrow and closed in by walls, with only a small window to look out of. No TV, no radio, no human contact for 23 hours a day. Prisoners are assigned to solitary at the sole discretion of guards — sometimes for “offenses” like carrying candy in their pockets or for facial expressions. Federal officials have ruled the Illinois system of solitary confinement to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”  

Monica Cosby, of the West Side Justice Center, spent 20 years in prison, including five in solitary. She said that prisoners who are released are given a list of things they must do to complete their parole, but that list is not supplemented by information on how to get them done. Currently, she’s advocating for more investment in poor communities. 

Guillermo Gutierrez, a law student who served as a street law educator with First Defense Legal Aid, said that people must know their rights.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years. www.barrelhousebonni.com  She has led classes for young and old on...