In preparation for her Oct. 9th and 10th events on prisons and justice, The Bend Bulletin featured an interview with Walidah Imarisha.
Portland author to talk in Bend
Walidah Imarisha confronts racial inequality in prisons
Meet author, poet and educator Walidah Imarisha
What: Think & Drink
When: 6:30-8 p.m. Monday (doors at 6 p.m.)
Where: McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St., Bend
Contact: mcmenamins.com or 541-382-5174
What: Book Talk
When: 4-5:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Central Oregon Community College, Wille Hall (Coats Campus Center), 2600 NW College Way, Bend
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-383-7412
When Walidah Imarisha was a 15-year-old high school student in Springfield, she saw a newspaper ad for a San Francisco area prisoner who was selling artwork and decided to order one of his pieces as part of a burgeoning interest in her African heritage.
Imarisha had no way of knowing she was setting in motion events that would shape much of what has followed in her personal and professional life.
After buying the art, she began corresponding with the prisoner, Kakamia Jahad Imarisha. The two realized they were kindred spirits and eventually informally adopted each other as siblings.
“I say I mail-ordered myself a brother,” she said.
Imarisha’s conversations with Kakamia, and her visits to the California prison where he was serving a sentence of 15 years to life for his role in a murder conspiracy at 16, led her to question the purpose of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Her own experiences after being sexually assaulted by a boyfriend only reinforced these ideas.
The Portland author, educator and poet will discuss criminalization, poverty, prisons and harm within the U.S. criminal justice system at events sponsored by the Deschutes Public Library, Central Oregon Community College and Oregon Humanities on Monday and Tuesday in Bend.
Imarisha came to believe prisons have very little to do with crime, safety or rehabilitation and everything to do with social control over people of color. This is due to the frameworks of the justice and prison systems that were established in the aftermath of the Civil War, and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime.”
Imarisha embarked on a journey of academic research and activism to shed light on the racial and social injustice she sees as inherent in the criminal justice system (and elsewhere) in the U.S.
This journey saw Imarisha perform as a slam poet, work as a journalist and teach at Stanford, Portland State, Oregon State and Southern New Hampshire universities. She organized Black Lives Matter protests, worked with Oregon Humanities’ A Conversation Project, edited two social justice anthologies and authored the poetry collection “Scars/Stars.”
In 2017, Imarisha was awarded a 2017 Oregon Book Award for “Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption.” Part memoir, part biography and addressing the uncomfortable subject of prison life, it was a book she had a difficult time getting published. It didn’t fit neatly into any of the established literary genres or marketing niches.
“For me, prisons are something that has been a significant part of my life for the vast majority of my life through my personal connection, my organizing work, my scholarship and my academic work,” Imarisha explained.
“I felt this book was important to rehumanize those who’ve been made into nightmares and objects,” she continued. “Until we shift the frame of how we talk about who is inside prisons, we can’t change the prison system.”
In “Angels With Dirty Faces,” Imarisha explores the lives of two inmates — her adopted brother and Jimmy “Mac” MacElroy, a former hit man for the Westies Irish gang in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
While acknowledging the frequent violence that occurs within prisons, Imarisha also paints a surprising picture of the immense community that exists between inmates who provide support and love for each other.
“That’s not the image we receive about what’s happening in there,” she said. “People envision prison like ‘Lord of the Flies’ and talk about it as if that’s where people who’ve given up their humanity go.”
She spent 10 years researching and writing “Angels With Dirty Faces” and says one of her biggest regrets is that Jimmy MacElroy died in prison before the book was published in 2016. Kakamia is still incarcerated and has spent 27 years behind bars.
Despite all her investigation and visits to prisons across the U.S., Imarisha does not offer up a solution to the difficult issues surrounding prison reform and racial inequality in the justice system.
Instead, she hopes her work will inspire a comprehensive conversation about some of the many alternatives to incarceration in use around the world. Most of these focus less on punishment and more on healing and restitution.
“We’ve been told prisons are for our safety for so long that it’s hard to imagine that’s not the case,” Imarisha said. “But the majority of people who do violent harm are out here, not in prison.”