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When I started working with people locked up in prison in 1998, Illinois was still a death penalty state, and the individuals I met were facing execution. Back then, at least one human being was being executed every week across the United States. When I started teaching with the Prison Neighborhood Arts Project at Stateville Prison in 2015, I was heartened to reconnect with people I had first met on Illinois’ death row who had now become PNAP students. They had escaped being executed by the state when former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted most of the state’s death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but they were now facing an in-house death sentence.

Teaching classes at Stateville and facilitating an inside think tank that examines long-term sentencing practices in Illinois would fast become an important part of my life and work. What I had learned during my work to abolish capital punishment in Illinois became even more apparent to me in the classrooms at Stateville: none of us are defined by the worst thing we have done. Despite the inhumanity of incarceration, our classrooms become transformative spaces where we learn from each other, create knowledge and art, and build community. 

As COVID-19 spreads, both in our neighborhoods and in Illinois prisons and jails, many of us find ourselves fearing once again for the lives of our students and all those who are incarcerated. Severe COVID-19 outbreaks among incarcerated populations have prompted advocates to sound the alarm for people in prison and the communities around them, and the Human Rights Lab is urgently working with our community partners to address the pandemic. Because physical distancing is not possible in prisons and access to soap and disinfectant supplies are extremely limited, prisons and jails are uniquely dangerous places to be during the pandemic. In response to the fierce urgency of this moment, a number of mutual aid and advocacy initiatives are being organized. A criminal conviction should not be a death sentence. 

You can learn more about these initiatives on the #FreeThePeople website, and we will provide regular updates about these efforts on the Pozen Center Facebook page.