Renaldo Hudson, an inmate at a maximum-security prison outside Chicago, initiated a writing contest in the fall of 2003, asking Illinois prisoners to reflect on the questions, “Who am I, and what can I do to be better?” Lockdown Prison Heart contains the thirty-eight personal essays submitted to the contest. These brief writings–thoughtful, angry, sorrowful, honest, regretful, meditative–allow us to hear directly from people whose voices are too often distorted or ignored by mainstream media. The proceeds from the collection will be donated to Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, a national organization composed of people who have had family members murdered–by homicide or state killings–and who work to restore communities by promoting crime prevention, opposing the death penalty, and helping victims reconstruct their lives.
Some of the writers in this collection have spent over twenty-five years in Illinois prisons. Others have been in for a matter of months. They all know what it means to “do time,” and in these essays they reflect on how to make that time meaningful.
Renaldo Hudson, Stateville prison inmate
I am extremely thrilled that we are able to share our thoughts and souls to the public in these essays. These men and women are so brave. I take my hat off to all of them. Daily, I hear the hearts of men losing hope and the will to live. At the same time, I see the growth in so many.
It is our hope that these essays will encourage others to think about who they are and what they can do better. We hope that you enjoy them as much as we did writing them. Please share them with as many people as you can. We want to grow. Help us to keep moving down the roads of positive change. May God bless.
More comments on Lockdown Prison Heart:
Sister Helen Prejean,
author of Dead Man Walking
The United States incarcerates 2 million people. Here are the voices of thirty-eight of them. These men and women heard about a writing contest that asked them to reflect on who they are—and so they did. Reading their accounts of struggle, loss, injury, faith, and hope, I am compelled to ask the same question to those of us who live outside prison walls: Who are we, and what can we do better?
This book has inspired creativity and productive thought, highlighting the humanity of prisoners. To make society better, prison must make prisoners better, and this kind of effort points us in that direction.
former CNN Chicago Bureau Chief
The written word can have tremendous power, particularly when it carries great emotion and great truth. Both are present in these essays. Powerful writing doesn’t require good grammar, clever prose or even proper spelling. It comes from people who have something to say. And the men and women in these pages have much to say, primarily from personal experience—most of it experience they wish they’d never had.
Spending time with the people who populate prisons and particularly those on the former death row has reaffirmed for me a guiding journalistic principle: that all should have a voice regardless of color, race, opinion or what they may have done in their lives.
These essays give voices that are often silent the chance to be heard. We are better for the listening.
English Professor, West Virginia University
From Tamms, the supermaximum security prison in southern Illinois, Jeffrey Boswell composed an essay, submitted it, and soon was notified that he had won second prize. He wrote to my father, who was helping organize the contest, and asked if he would send him back a copy of his essay. Jeffrey had mailed the original. My father put Jeffrey’s essay in the mail, but it was returned to my father with a form letter explaining that inmates cannot communicate with other inmates.
Such obstacles and delays are routine when dealing with prisons, but this one has stayed with me for its metaphorical potential: Can an imprisoned person communicate with herself or himself? This collection assures me the answer is, With perseverance, yes.
Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation
When family members of murder victims struggle to face life after the tragedy that ended the lives of their loved ones, they must live with what some of us call “the new normal.” Our lives now contain a grave, which shapes us forever after the murder. Part of that difficult new reality is the fact that the offender often remains alive while their family member is dead. Yet members of MVFR firmly believe that vengeance and more bloodshed is not the answer. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. We know, more than most, how wrong it is to kill. We seek to reconcile ourselves to working against the cycles of violence that caused the death of our loved ones to begin with. We work to support each other as we struggle to cope. Many family members of murder victims need, more than almost anything sometimes, to understand why these horrible events occurred. And many of them long to hear words of remorse from those that hurt them the most. When my sister Nancy, her husband Richard, and their unborn child were murdered, her final act of life was to draw a Heart and a “U” in her own blood – her last word on life was LOVE in the face of great evil. She shared a profound truth with us in those final moments of her life: that love is the most important thing in the world. In the face of that, I hoped that their killer could come to realize the full measure of what he had taken. And since that time, I have come to know many of the prisoners whose writings are contained in this book. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful to victims of violent crime than to hear these words of responsibility and remorse, of healing and seeking forgiveness, of courage and growth. Finally, these writings are a redemption of tragedy. I am grateful to the writers herein for their decision to give the funds from this book to MVFR, and for the ways that they are helping all of us to heal.
Advocate and Frequent Visitor to Illinois Prisons and JailsRenaldo Hudson and other inmates have provided me with genuine inspiration. Renaldo is the most truly spiritual person I have known. Reading the essays contained in this book will provide insight into the minds and thoughts of men and women in Illinois prisons. There are the stories of the guilty and the wrongfully convicted, of those who accept responsibility for their actions and those who seem to blame others. All the stories speak to the pain and suffering of the victims as well as those who cause the violence. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to learn more about the individual writers, the criminal justice and prison system in our country.
My journey with prisons and death-row inmates began about eight years ago when our daughter Katy sent me a book entitled, Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean. I had spent my lifetime in child welfare services where my focus was on trying to protect and support children and families and not giving much thought or consideration to the criminal justice system. I was moved reading Dead Man Walking and called Helen. During the conversation, she suggested I visit with people on death row. I contacted the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and discovered that two executions were scheduled in Illinois the next week. The parents of one of the men to be executed wanted to visit their son but had no transportation. I agreed to take them to visit their son. The first time I walked through the doors and into a visiting room with a sign “Condemned Unit,” my knees were shaking and heart pounding. I met Hernando Williams and Jim Free who were to be killed by the state in two days.
The day after they were killed, I had a phone call from William Peebles, one of the essayists in this book, who called to thank me for taking Hernando’s parents to see their son. I made arrangements to visit with William, and he introduced me to Renaldo and several others. As a result of getting to know men and women in prison, I became active in the abolition movement in Illinois and organized a death penalty moratorium movement. I became friends with each of the seventeen innocent men who had been sentenced to death in Illinois and were later exonerated, and I knew six of the thirteen men who were executed. I recall Walter Stewart putting his handcuffed arms around me the day before he was killed saying, “Don’t cry, Bill. I am alright, I am going to Jesus. You go home and have a beer.”
Former Governor George Ryan on January 30, 2000, declared a moratorium on state killings and on January 11, 2003, commuted the sentences of each of the 167 men and women on Illinois Death Row, pardoning four men. After leaving death row and being assigned to a different prison, Renaldo told me he wanted to have an essay contest so people can learn more about prisoners. I said I would be glad to help out, and this book of essays was conceived. Maybe, just maybe, someone else will begin a journey of learning about the reality of prison life and the humanness of the people living there.
If any readers would like more information about any of the essayists or any others issues, please feel free to contact me. Bill Ryan, 2237 Sunnyside, Westchester, IL, 60154; 708-531-9923; email firstname.lastname@example.org.