Immediately upon entering the Arts Incubator, an arts initiative and gallery run by the University of Chicago in Washington Park, visitors stopped to look at the dozens of vertical black banners hanging in rows on the hallway walls. Each banner bore a single name in simple white lettering: Gregory Banks, James Lewis, Lee Nora, Unknown 14 Year Old. At the bottom of the banner were the words “Tortured in Chicago.”
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.
Illinois has been making moves toward reducing incarceration, but there is a large group of people who are being left behind. People like twenty-one-year-old Joe Montgomery, who have been sentenced with Class X felonies, make up almost a third of Illinois’ prison population, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Some say these individuals who need the most help are instead left with few options but prison. City Bureau reporters Sajedah Al-khzaleh and Bia Medious spoke with Montgomery’s friends and family about the hole his absence means to his community.
This is an excerpt of a forthcoming zine written by a team of reporting fellows at City Bureau, a civic journalism lab in Chicago focused on serving the South and West Sides.
The third in a series on pretrial detention
The second in a series on pretrial detention
The first in a series on pretrial detention