Incarceration and the Afterlife of Slavery: How a College and a Prison in Illinois Use Art to Reckon with the Past and Present

Guest contributor: Tennille Nicole Allen*

It takes me four minutes to drive the five miles from the gates of Lewis University, where I chair the sociology department, to the gates of Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security state prison. The short distance between Lewis and Stateville reminds me of the short distance between enslavement and mass incarceration. That connection was certainly illuminated the first time Huma Zia—an attorney, associate professor of justice, law, and public safety, and program director of paralegal studies at Lewis—and I were invited inside for a visit in the spring of 2022. 

Huma and I sat down with one of the men incarcerated at Stateville. Soon after we exchanged introductions, he began to describe himself as being warehoused. He talked about Black men like himself—from neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago—being rounded up. They were forced into tiny cages, forced to work for what might as well be no wages, and forced behind bars for the rest of their lives. The man asked us what that sounded like, using a tone and look that let us know that he already knew the answer he sought. In that same tone, he asked a second question: “What did slave ships look like?” In case the image didn’t readily come to our minds’ eyes, he drew us a verbal picture of Black bodies on top of Black bodies on top of Black bodies, occupying the smallest space possible, having their movements severely curtailed, and being subjected to constant surveillance. He ended his description with the word “warehoused.” 

I told him this was exactly what Huma and I were interested in learning more about with him and other men incarcerated there: the current condition of mass incarceration as a direct legacy of American slavery—especially as it is intertwined with racial segregation, another direct legacy of American slavery. 

The mostly Black and brown men that Huma and I talk to at Stateville are almost all from hyper-segregated neighborhoods in Chicago: mass incarceration in the United States is also an account of race, place, and migration. The Black men at Stateville are the children and grandchildren of Great Migrants who came from Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, just as the brown men are either migrants themselves or the children and grandchildren of migrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, or other parts of Central and South America. Both groups were forced by a set of processes older than themselves into segregated communities in the Black or Brown Belts of Chicago’s West and South Sides. They talk to us about growing up in Austin and Little Village. They recount stories of hanging out in the park in Englewood and Pilsen. They recall what it was like going to high school in North Lawndale and Back of the Yards. These community names readily suggest the geographic and racial boundedness of Chicagoans’ physical and mental maps. 

It’s not a surprise that the men we talk to at Stateville focus on the communities they come from. These places are over-surveilled, over-policed, and over-incarcerated. Their stories are about living in heavily surveilled neighborhoods, of detentions, suspensions, and expulsions from schools, of police encounters at early ages.  

To learn more about and from these stories, originally gathered in conversations and interviews, we have partnered with musician, producer, and teacher Antony Ablan. Antony launched the Rebirth of Sound Recording Studio at Stateville in 2021 in collaboration with Chicago hip-hop legend and actor Common and his Imagine Justice foundation. Rebirth of Sound offers incarcerated men a 12-week program that builds on skills that many participants already have (like songwriting and rapping) while teaching about music production and audio engineering in a studio filled with equipment provided by Common.

What’s created in the studio is not just music, but the connectedness and community that music itself creates. Together, incarcerated men create and share podcasts, host special occasions like graduations, and conduct interviews. Documenting all of this through photography and videography is Mateo Zapata. Mateo’s story is also about race, place, and migration. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, of Colombian and Chilean descent, and currently lives in Chicago. He is a creative who works at the intersection of the arts, photojournalism, and community advocacy, with partners that have included La Casa Norte, Chicago Public Schools, San José Obrero Mission, YWCA Chicago, HBO Max Pa’lante!, Equiticity, the Chicago White Sox, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. His work is dedicated to documenting narratives from across Chicago; in this particular project, he is helping document narratives from the men at Stateville that connect to communities across the city.

In each interview we’ve done, the men talk about the communities they come from and the relationships they have with friends, family, and the communities themselves. Mateo will then use his photojournalist’s lens to show where they are from. We will continue to join photography, video, journalism, and sociology as we go to the West and South Sides to talk with community residents, starting with the friends and families of Rebirth of Sound participants. This will highlight the connections between the men and their communities and the larger connections between mass incarceration and race, place, and migration in America.

* Tennille Nicole Allen is professor and chair of the sociology department at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, where she also directs the programs in African American Studies and Ethnic and Cultural Studies. Her primary teaching and research interests are in the intersections of race, class, gender, identity, and place. Lewis University is a Regional Collaboration Partner in the CIC Legacies of Slavery network, with a programmatic focus on the themes of mass incarceration and race, place, and migration. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the university, the Council of Independent Colleges, or the Mellon Foundation.