Reflections from two creators of the Humans of Life Row chapbook

By Beth Awano


What makes you feel safe?
If you could change anything in the world, what would that be? 
What does freedom smell like? 
Tell a story about where you live. 
What are you proud of?

During the peak of the pandemic, the Justice, Policy, and Culture Think Tank comprised of incarcerated scholars at Stateville Prison responded to these prompts and more about their everyday lives. Co-facilitated by Professor Alice Kim, the Think Tank has been exploring the impact and experiences of long-term incarceration and sentencing practices. The poetic, insightful, and relatable responses from Think Tank participants comprise the Humans of Life Row project. 

“Life row” is a euphemism for the grouping of people serving life or de facto life sentences of forty or more years. Inspired by the Humans of New York photography project, in the midst of the pandemic, the Think Tank embarked on a journey of reflection, writing and cultural production. 

Inspired by the project, Dayo Adeoye, Beth Awano, Yazud Brito-Milian, Tommy Hagan, and Pablo Mendoza poured over pages of handwritten responses written by Think Tank members. The group brainstormed how to create a narrative project that would give readers a glimpse into the lives of people serving long-term prison sentences. At the urging of Think Tank participants to include women’s voices, the group expanded the project to include students in North Park’s School of Restorative Arts at Logan Correctional Center, where women are incarcerated in Illinois. They also partnered with American Friends Service Committee Chicago Peacebuilding initiative to include others incarcerated within the Illinois Department of Corrections. With responses and iterative feedback from the 21 contributors, the team of students created the chapbook: Humans of Life Row: “I walk into the future by visualizing it today”.

Here, Tommy Hagan and Dayo Adoeye share their reflections on the Humans of Life Row chapbook. 

Tommy Hagan

(‘21, Fundamentals: Issues and Texts and Philosophy double major) 
Human Rights Lab Research Fellow 

Often when incarcerated people are brought into the work of people in university settings, their experiences are reduced to subject matter for someone else’s analysis. In coordinating a publication that centered the writings of incarcerated men and women and incorporated their feedback on designs and curations at every step, I felt that the Humans of Life Row project subverted traditional publication processes that (re)produce harm by tokenizing, manipulating, or using the contributions of incarcerated people without their consent or feedback. 

I believe that this project effectively amplified the contributions of incarcerated men and women without expropriating their stories and manipulating them for ulterior purposes of people in free society. In consistently corresponding with the incarcerated authors who contributed as chapbook drafts were developed, we proceeded in direct collaboration with people behind prison walls. 

In promoting the chapbook as part of the movement for the passage of earned discretionary release, we were also able to provide and mobilize support behind a cause supported by many of the incarcerated authors. While earned discretionary release did not end up passing in the legislature, I think that this chapbook process was instructive for future publication efforts. 

Going forward, I want the Humans of Life Row project to continue to seek peerage with incarcerated authors whose work we publish and amplify.

Dayo Adeoye

(‘22 Law, Letters, and Society & Religious Studies double major and Human Rights minor)
Mass Incarceration Working Group Fellow

When I first saw the physical copy of the Humans of Life Row chapbook my heart was overflowing with emotions, but the most meaningful emotion that I felt was a sense of gratitude for the entire process. I am incredibly proud and thankful to be a part of the The Humans of Life Row project. 

My role as a Design Artist, along with Yazud, was to read each contributor's Human of Life Row responses, choose which responses to highlight, and design each profile from the color schemes to the visuals. My method for creating each profile was quite simple. I would read the entries of the people inside and start with a color. I would think to myself - what colors did their words bring to mind? What images? What feelings? I would then try to create a representation of those thoughts that would culminate into each profile. 

Through this process I truly learned the power of written narratives and how we can use words to forge connections across time and space. I have not yet gotten the chance to formally meet the majority of the contributors, but through their words I was able to get to know them very intimately. I know who they love, what makes them think, the thoughts (the smells) that make up their daily lives. 

Creating the Humans of Life Row chapbook was a masterclass in vulnerability and connection. In all things, I hoped to make the contributors of the chapbook proud and do justice to their openness. Making the chapbook was a labor of love, and the reward was knowing the people involved were excited for it and loved the work! 

Overall, the most meaningful part of creating the chapbook was working with Beth, Yazud, Tommy, Pablo, and Alice. They are my role models and some of the best collaborators, activists, and thinkers. I am highly looking forward to the future of this project and seeing where it grows! 

Inspired by Tommy’s and Dayo’s reflections? Read the chapbook here!