Michael Penny, a Black Chicago native, experienced his first encounter with law enforcement when he was 11 years old. He and some friends were breaking into a parked car by the old Chicago Stadium when the police drove up.

“I was slammed to the ground, couldn’t breathe,” Penny said. “To me, a car wasn’t worth all that. You know the worst thing about it? I didn’t even go to jail. They beat me up, tossed me around, left me in the dirt.”

Penny shared this story on Thursday evening at a One Book One Northwestern webinar event, “Life in the System: Personal Reflections on Incarceration and Re-entry,” moderated by Feinberg Professor Linda Teplin. Penny was joined by two other Black men from Chicago, Willie Hobson and Renaldo Hudson. They were all serving life sentences in prison until their sentences were commuted in July 2020 by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. They are now part of the Illinois Prison Project, an organization that fights against the racist criminal legal system by advocating for and with thousands of people who are needlessly incarcerated, according to their mission statement.

Hudson, currently the Director of Education at the Illinois Prison Project, was convicted of murder in 1983 and sentenced to death row at 19 years old. Hudson said he was on drugs and hallucinating when he took a man’s life, but he felt it was important to know the context of his life before the incident.

“I come from so much trauma,” he said. “At the age of six, my twin brother was kicked down a flight of stairs and broke his neck. At the age of 15, my brother of a year older decided to kill my family.”

Hudson’s older brother shot him and eight other family members with a shotgun, killing two of them, an experience that Hudson said affected his crime.

“I was hurting. I attempted to self medicate. I also was a teenage alcoholic. I used to sell myself to women to get food," Hudson said. "In 1983, when I walked into the police station guilty of murder, I never attempted to deny what I did. I simply tried to say something was wrong with me.”

Hudson, who served a total of 37 years in prison before his sentence was commuted, described his 13 years on death row as “horrifying.” He said he couldn’t remember a night where he didn’t hear someone crying. He saw several people commit suicide rather than die at the hands of an executioner. He mentioned the mistreatment from the prison guards, especially when it came to their handling of “riots,” which Hudson preferred to think of as “emotional eruptions.”

“The real criminals, if you ask me, are in a different uniform,” he said, referring to the prison guards he encountered.

Hudson also noticed racism in the sentencing process. He said judges are much harsher on Black convicts than their white counterparts.

“I love all my people. But I’m telling you, every person on death row that was caucasian was a serial killer,” Hudson said. “I’m not judging anyone, but you had Black men on death row for single murders.”

While incarcerated, Hudson became involved with the Building Block Program, which supports those in prison and puts them at the forefront of their own rehabilitation. Their five core principles are respect, responsibility, ownership, community and empathy.

“We put respect in the beginning so we can teach each other how to get to empathy,” Hudson said. “Many of us that grew up on the streets don’t really understand that psychology. Why would I be empathetic to a world that’s only been vicious toward me?”

The Building Block Program also focuses on education. Hudson said he entered the prison system as a “functioning illiterate,” but the Building Block Program helped him with tutoring, and he walked out with a Bachelor of Divinity.

“The state of Illinois decided there was nothing redeemable about me,” he said. “There’s potential in everyone.”

Despite the Building Block Project’s educational support, Hudson, Penny and Hobson experienced frustration with re-entering society after being released. One of the main issues was obtaining identification. They all had to jump through hoops to get a social security card and state ID.

“You don’t have a right to vote,” Penny said, emphasizing the importance of identification. “It’s another way to suppress you and get you to hit that revolving door.”

Fixing the issuings inside prisons and removing barriers of re-entry is a priority for Hudson and the Illinois Prison Project. Hudson’s vision of reform for the justice system has a more holistic sentencing process with “scales of evaluation” to factor in trauma and upbringing. He also said that currently prisons are not a place of rehabilitation, and more programs for education and therapy would help.

Hudson ended the event with a call to action, motivating the viewers to get involved with the Illinois Prison Project.

“People probably know that the system is rooted in systemic racism,” he said. “But what most people don’t know is that their silence allows it to exist. I came here because I really want to recruit soldiers.”

Penny echoed Hudson’s sentiments about making a difference.

“I hope that the things we do, the conversations we have, the stories we tell are not in vain,” he said.

*Article Thumbnail courtesy of the Illinois Prison Project