Walidah Imarisha - Photo by Pete Shaw
“So sometimes people hurt each other. Horribly. And then what? What of those who have done damage—sometimes unimaginable—to others? When do we stop seeing a human being and see only a monster, a prisoner?”
These are the questions that Walidah Imarisha asks in Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption, a book that's a call for all of us to re-envision justice, healing, and transformation. In the book, which came out in February from AK Press, Walidah Imarisha examines the criminal justice system through multiple lenses, including that of her own experience as a survivor of assault.
Walidah has many identities. Many readers know as the co-editor social justice and science fiction anthology Octavia’s Brood and she is also a prison abolitionist and the adopted sister of Kakamia Imarisha, a man currently imprisoned in California. When he was 16, Kakamia agreed to help another boy kill his parents for the insurance money. The boy shot both parents; his mother died and his father lived. Kakamia took the advice of his lawyer, who told him that if he pled guilty he’d spend no more than 15 years in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to 15-years-to-life. More than 25 years later, Kakamia remains in prison.
Behind bars, the man who becomes Walidah's brother has grown into an artist, a poet, and a caring human being. Through memories of visiting room stories, letters, and phone calls, Walidah illustrates not just a person’s capacity to change and grow, but also the compassion and community possible even behind prison walls. During one visit, she meets Kakamia’s ex-cellmate, who uses a wheelchair. He tells her that when he first developed the disease that ultimately left him unable to walk, other men began avoiding him. But Kakamia requested to be his cellmate and helped him whenever he needed it. “I don’t know if I would have gotten through it without him there. It just reminded me that someone cared, when it felt like nobody, not even God did, some days,” he says. In other words, even in prison, Kakamia is defined by more than that one awful and tragic teen decision.
Walidah also tells the story of Mac, a member of the Westies, the Irish gang that ruled New York’s Hell’s Kitchen from the 1960s to the mid 1980s. What the Westies became infamous for was murder, dismembering their victims’ bodies, stuffing them into garbage bags, and tossing them into the river. Mac was frequently the trigger man.
“Mac especially is one of the stories that fuels the prison system,” Walidah writes. “Anyone who believes in exploring and creating alternatives to incarceration will eventually be hit in the face with people like Mac, perhaps even with people like my brother. Rather than run from it, these are the stories we have to explore, the transformations and the redemptions, if we are to fundamentally shift how we think about crime and punishment in this country.”
That is exactly what Walidah does. Through a series of visiting room interviews, she shows Mac not just as the hit man, but also as a loving father, family member, and partner. She sets Mac’s life—and his decisions that cause a trail of death—in the context not just of the Westies and the mid-century opportunities (or lack thereof) for the Irish working class, but the overall history of the Irish in America and the country’s changing political landscape.
Kakamia’s and Mac’s actions are set against the backdrop of the everyday institutional violence of the prison itself. Walidah brings readers through the dehumanizing experiences that she and millions of family members must endure if they want to see their loved ones. The book opens with a guard ordering Walidah to rip the underwire from her bra. Then the guard orders Walidah to retrieve the discarded metal bits from the bathroom garbage, telling her, “I need you to get it, bring it to me. I will give you a slip that shows you checked it in, and when you leave, it will be returned to you.” Should Walidah refuse to root around the bin filled with used tampons and dirty tissues? If she does, the guard threatens, “I will flag you so that you will not be allowed back in the facility until we know that you will properly follow the rules established for your safety and the security of the institution.”
Sometimes these actions are dehumanizing and humiliating; other times, they are inhumane and utterly gratuitous. Prison officials tell Kakamia that his mother had died. Later, he learns that she was still alive but, suffering from severe arthritis, had been unable to write or visit him. For years, he had mourned her death before learning the truth. “Prison is a site of pain, and unnecessary psychological games justified by the need to ‘keep the inmates on their toes,’ so they don’t know what’s going on,’” Walidah notes.
The third story is Walidah’s own. She devotes a chapter to her sexual assault by her then-boyfriend and the painful aftermath as she attempts to heal and seek accountability. She chooses not to involve the legal system, but instead find a community accountability process. “I did not want [him] broken,” she wrote. “I only wanted to be made whole again. I did not realize how important the feeling of being safe in the arms of the person you love was until it disintegrated.” Being made whole again is neither simple nor easy. It can be a frustrating and painful process. For those assaulted by loved ones or trusted friends, the road to healing is neither linear nor straightforward and can be fraught with even more pain.
While acknowledging that he did something wrong, her boyfriend minimizes the harm. “He also said it could not be that bad, as you and him were still together and seeing each other all the time,” a mutual friend repeats to Walidah. Others are also skeptical, a reaction that faces countless other survivors should they choose to come forward .
That chapter alone is powerful, articulating the conflicting whirlpool of emotions and reactions that bombard many survivors. It should be a must-read for everyone. It should be repeatedly read by anyone who knows a person who has been assaulted—and should be daily reading for anyone who has ever been told they committed a sexual assault. Set in the context of Mac’s and Kakamia’s stories, the chapter is even more profound.
“I would like for us to start with questions, rather than foregone conclusions,” Walidah writes. “I would hope all of us could start with the question, ‘What would be the healthiest for the individuals and community involved?’ rather than ‘Who should we make pay?’”