Credit: Micah Clark Moody

Thirty-four people became published authors and were recognized at an event in Cook County Jail last month.

The writers completed the ConTextos memoir-writing program together and released their work into the world. Their peers, facilitators, supporters, and family celebrated together in a gym in the jail’s Division 6, a ceremony that included the new authors walking across the stage to receive a paperback copy of their book.

“We was just so proud, I couldn’t say that enough. I was just so proud, so proud,” said Tarshe Anderson, sister of author Allante Anderson. “I wish I could have hugged him.”

Tarshe could not hug her brother because the jail administration forbade physical contact at the event. 

The writing program was organized by ConTextos, a non-profit dedicated to using literary arts and education to heal individual trauma and interrupt community violence. ConTextos was founded in El Salvador and expanded to Chicago. Here, ConTextos has events for people outside of jail and a memoir writing workshop inside the jail, which started in 2018 and runs every six months. 

Authors and facilitators—some facilitators work for ConTextos on the outside and others are jailed—explain that writing memoirs with a group of men is a profound experience, leading them to access emotion and process trauma in a new way.

“This means everything to me,” reflected Kendall Brown who published his memoir Brainstorming. “I put all my background in one book to express to the world.” Brainstorming is not only for the world, according to Brown, but for his daughters too.

“I’m a girl-dad,” he said smiling, turning to the pictures of his girls in the memoir. Through this book, Kendall hopes they can better understand their dad and his temporary absence.

The Anderson family has financially and emotionally supported Allante through ten years of pretrial incarceration and two years of post-trial jailing while he appeals. 

Anderson celebrates his sister’s love in his memoir, Misrepresented

“Walking over I was just so proud,” Tarshe remembers. “I was just so proud of the way he evolved when he started going through that program. It’s completely changed…how he was in the situation and it gave him hope.” 

This hope came because ConTextos “gave him something to do,” Tarshe explains. “Because for a long time, he just been sitting. Sitting, trying to wonder how he got himself in this situation. So, I was just proud at that moment,” dancing across the stage to take a picture with her brother and his newly published memoir.  

Basheer is a ConTextos facilitator and author of two memoirs: A Son of a Gun with the Heart of a Bullet and Anx: Turn Me Inside Out. After the event, listing all the moments that made him proud, Basheer paused to reflect, “I always said they could do it. And now they have.” 

The connection built among the participants through the ConTextos workshops was evident in the speeches they gave at the event. As people spoke, they cracked inside jokes that only the participants understood and called out their peers’ achievements. 

Most speakers shouted out the memoirs of their fellow authors, pointing out where they connected with each other’s stories.

“One thing I realized from this class is that we are not special in our struggles,” Anderson reflected. “Whether you are from out West, over East, or the south suburbs, whether they Chicago, New York, or California. The poverty, violence, and hopelessness of the ghetto is universal. Different faces, different accents, with the same struggles, the same trauma, and more often than not the system gets the same results.”

Thanking the group facilitators for the role in the class, Anderson explained, “you made us comfortable enough to share. [We shared] not only the things that make us happy, but also the things that hurt us, even something that most people would be embarrassed to admit or speak about. But you didn’t judge, you just gave us a voice to keep going. This class was like therapy for me and I thank you.”

This sharing was particularly powerful for fathers in ConTextos who are separated from their children, explained Kendall, the “girl-dad.” Adam Flores, a father sitting next to him, nodded in agreement. 

For Flores, talking in the group didn’t come naturally. In his memoir Decisions, he shares more. “Whenever I talk to Monica and my son hears my voice he says, “dad” in a curious way,” Flores writes. “Hearing him say “dad” and [him] recognizing my voice puts a genuine smile on my face and brightens my mood. At least I know he still knows who I am. I sit and talk to him and he babbles away saying a word here and there. I’m excited for him to start talking so we can have full conversations on the subfloor so he can tell me what’s wrong when he’s crying.”

After the publication event, guards walked the authors back to their cells in Division 6. “I feel like we did something wrong, shit, walking us out of here like this,” an author said. By 2:00pm, authors were locked in their cells.  

Later that night, authors sought out the anticipated memoirs of their peers. Basheer explained, “We’re all seeking out each other’s books, asking around to make sure we get to read them all.”

One reason the publication event is unique in Cook County Jail is that the author’s lives are otherwise routine. Flores said that, after class, authors “come back to the deck and we’re locked up right away. [We] go into the cells and we come back [out of cells into common space], like a couple hours later…[We] watch TV or play chess, workout. Make food, cook. And it’s that same thing every single day.”

Anderson explains, “instead of rehabilitation…[jail] bring[s] more hopelessness and frustration. So if you know how hopelessness and frustration play a part in our neighborhoods that’s written without us, imagine how it plays when you have 440 hopeless and frustrated people trapped in one tier year after year with nothing to look forward to except a continuance [in their criminal case].”

The wellbeing of people in jail is connected to the wellbeing of Chicago. “A lot of us are going to be released,” Anderson added, “whether we [are found innocent and] beat our case or get time served [and are released immediately after pleading guilty or trial]. [We] are released to the streets more criminalized.” 

The ConTextos program is only accessible to men jailed in a subsection of two of seven jail Divisions. According to Antonio Porter, the Cook County Sheriff Office Director of Programs, limited programs are offered because “a lot of our programming is offered by volunteers.”

Porter oversees in-house programming such as religious programs and educational opportunities. “For this specific ConTextos program, they started in just one division and are now in two divisions. So as they expand, this particular program can expand to other individuals in custody,” he added.

Relying on volunteers for programming places the burden for “rehabilitation,” one justification for denying people freedom, on private volunteers and funders. 

This ConTextos program is partially funded through government grants to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and partially funded by foundations and individuals that make up the broader ConTextos budget. Since 2017, when the ConTextos program began inside Cook County Jail, ten groups of men have written memoirs. The most recent group, circle ten, was the first circle to hire alumni facilitators alongside Contextos staff who facilitate circles. 

Anderson, after twelve years in Cook County Jail, argues that the programming available is not sufficient or accessible. “Personally, I’ve been trying to get into a program for the last ten years with no luck. When I came to Cook County Jail in my 20s, I was too young. When I made it to my 30s, I had too many—I was told I had too many—infractions from when I was in my 20s. And it was five months ago only by a stroke of luck that I found out ConTextos existed. So while I appreciate this opportunity I was finally given, I can’t help but think about the pretrial detainees in Division 9 [maximum security] that have been there multiple years and have never gotten this opportunity.”

“There are people who want to change and do something positive. All they need is a chance…”

You can find books published through the writing program on the ConTextos Issuu page.

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Micah Clark Moody works at Civil Rights Corps where she investigates pretrial jailing systems across the country, particularly in Los Angeles. She is also a researcher who has worked as a court watcher in Cook County Bond Court.

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