The artwork and poetry of inmates lined the walls. Mid-afternoon on a Saturday in February, there was an intimate gathering of people at Art on 51st, a gallery in Back of the Yards. They came to hear the story of Bill Ryan, of the people of Illinois, and of a failing justice system. Stateville Calling directed by Ben Kolak and released by Scrappers Film Group, recounts one man’s mission to bring a chance of parole or clemency to elderly inmates who, due to Illinois’ unique criminal justice system, are currently serving lengthy or life sentences.
Art on 51st is part of religious nonprofit Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which has advocated for restorative justice and healing since its founding in 2000. The artwork and poetry on display also comes from inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, a notorious maximum-security prison near Joliet. Developed through the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, which unites teachers and artists with men at Stateville, offering workshops, guest lectures, and other studies to inmates.
In 1978, the state of Illinois abolished its discretionary parole system. This controversial decision has led to overcrowded prisons as sentencing terms have become longer to replace the parole system. This issue is only amplified for elderly inmates: according to the film, it costs taxpayers approximately $67,000 a year to incarcerate an elderly inmate, making it cost twice as much than a younger traditional inmate.
Stateville Calling focuses not on an inmate, but on Ryan: an eighty-two-year-old prisoner’s rights activist, and his endeavor to give elderly prisoners facing long-term and life sentences a second chance in life. His primary aim is to fight for their freedom, or at least the possibility of parole, working with men housed in Stateville and women in the Springfield-area Logan Correctional Center. Ryan, a faithful Catholic and former social worker, is originally from Kentucky, and strongly believes in forgiveness and human transformation. Speaking in the film about this transformation, Ryan said, “It doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t take a lifetime.” However, the documentary shows that the state’s criminal justice system has not been open to recognizing inmates’ ability to change.
The documentary demonstrates Ryan’s utmost efforts to defend long term inmates. In the film, Ryan attends countless meetings with legislators and opens his heart to the stories of numerous inmates over the phone and in person. Charles Hoffman, an assistant defender in the Office of the Illinois State Appellate Defender, said in the film that Ryan was one of the most influential activists involved in the state’s abolishment of the death penalty in 2011.
At the end of the film screening, a few special guests discussed their personal experiences with incarceration. Among these guests was Eric Blackmon, a former Stateville inmate who was wrongfully accused of a murder he did not commit in 2002 and served roughly seventeen years in prison. He became a paralegal while serving time and represented himself during his court appeals. In January, Cook County prosecutors dropped all charges against him and made him a free man. Blackmon is now a full time paralegal at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, and offers his unique personal perspective to assist disadvantaged clients, including inmates.
The other speaker was Melissa Gallardo, the wife of longtime inmate and Pilsen native Benny Rios. Rios has already been in prison for seventeen years in Stateville, but his sentence is forty-five years to life. Gallardo explained her point of view as a visitor in the correctional facility, saying that too many people judge the ones who are incarcerated, not understanding that a lot of inmates change for the better. At one point, the prison previously restricted her from communicating with her husband, and written letters would take up to two months at a time to receive. During visits, prison guards would also make negative comments toward to her to hurt her relationship with her husband. She admitted that her daughters now have a hard time visiting Benny in prison because they know the experience will be unpleasant. Her husband will be attending his clemency hearing next month. Having exhausted all of his appeals, this will be his final chance at a reduced sentence. Gallardo however still has hope the state will recreate its parole system. This hope may be well-founded: the Illinois legislature passed a bill in November which provides parole opportunities to new offenders who commit crimes as minors, which is currently on Governor J.B. Pritzker’s desk. Although the bill does not address the elderly or the currently incarcerated, it is a step in the right direction.
In a call to action, Melissa Gallardo tells the audience, “Just keep fighting. Get involved. Even if you don’t have a loved one incarcerated. My husband has grown so much in there. He is a totally different man and change is possible. We see it every day. If we look at ourselves seventeen years ago, we were not the same person as we are today, so get involved… Pass the word.”
Eric Blackmon echoed Gallardo’s call to action in his concluding remarks. “I would just say, just keep fighting. Whether there’s parole, whether it’s sentencing, whether it’s fighting for a different statute,” he said. “Just speak out. Speak up… You just gotta keep fighting.”
Disclosure: Jill Petty, the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project’s co-director of community building, is a member of the Weekly’s board of directors.
Stateville Calling will be screened next at the Statehouse Inn, 101 E. Adams St., in Springfield, on Tuesday, March 26, 7pm–9pm. It will be followed by a discussion with Illinois Innocence Project executive and legal director John Hanlon. Free. bit.ly/StatevilleCallingSpringfield
Wendy “Random” Chavez is a contributor to the Weekly and photographer and writer from Los Angeles who is currently living on the South Side. She last contributed an interview with WHPK DJ K-Max last August.