Poetry of Witness: Dispatches From Hill Correctional Center

By Meredith Nnoka, Envisioning Justice Fellow

Read Time 6 minutes
October 15, 2021

My work toward Visions of Justice: Galesburg in 2020 led me to correspond and build relationships with four men who are currently serving long-term sentences at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois. These four men—Brandon, Brian, Cincere, and Omar—went on to become the featured perspectives in the Galesburg edition of Visions of Justice. Though I’ve since become friends with all four of them, our correspondence initially began as a series of interview questions I sent to each:

  1. James Baldwin wrote: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” What tale(s) from your life does this quote make you think of?
  2. What’s your earliest memory of racism and/or injustice? What did you take away from that experience?
  3. What should the response have been when you were being sentenced?
  4. If the end goal is a truly just society, what does that society look like to you? How do we get there? What about in terms of mass incarceration?

Those early interviews fundamentally changed me; more significantly, they gave me a window into four extraordinary human beings that I’d soon realize I was incredibly fortunate to have met. Brandon has the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a friend you’ve had all your life. Brian quietly reveals a bit more of himself with every email, and each time I feel honored to have witnessed the tenderness he’s capable of. Cincere makes it his mission to mentor everyone around him, with the result that I’m always at my best when I talk with him. Omar’s auto-didactic capacity for analyzing complex theoretical frameworks rivals some of my most challenging professors from graduate school.

Though their full written interviews for Visions of Justice span dozens of pages, earlier this year I was able to consult with each to condense their interviews into poems—one poem per person using only their words as the source text. The following poems use the cento form, which interweaves seemingly unrelated lines of text into poetry collages to create something new. These poems do not feature any of my own writing, nor can they presume to capture the essence of each speaker. What I can say is that these centos show these intelligent, thoughtful, and deeply empathetic men as they have appeared to me over the past year and a half. I hope you see them as I have.

  1. Brandon
  2. Brian
  3. Cincere
  4. Omar

Cento: Brandon

Tapping into my memory
I truly see it
my grandmother
telling me about stories
the good, bad, and ugly, she gave it all to me
all the future tales that have yet to be told
events that have already taken place
I knew it at such a young age
but this is only the half of it
what should have happened?
to be honest, the answer to this question has evolved
whether that was a parole hearing or a proceeding in front of a judge
I now know that
I was viewed by society as an enemy
I was left with an overweighted sentence
there will always be
an irreversible disease
racism on an institutional level
but there must be an awakening
that the greater good trumps the individual
like the story of El Dorado, a place that was said to possess gold and riches but was never found

Cento: Brian

I have many stories of me suffering
right now I’m suffering from not being there
things that will cross my path and push me
to that light, which is the people I love
I was born with two strikes against me
I realize that from the inside looking out
every day there’s a knee on our neck and nobody sees it
the only ones who know it are the ones we tell
that’s just from the history of my people
your honor, I’ve been through a whole lot
in the right and wrong direction, most of it was wrong
but to survive to see the next day
for me wanting to live I can’t be sorry
there’s too much pain in this world
crabs in a bucket
we should not be separated
everyone is on the same level 

Cento: Cincere

I was surrounded by darkness
in which I suffered many losses
some overcame the darkness by not drowning
I was alive, I just needed to live
yes, I triumphed, I overcame
my story is not new
it will not be the last
for the moment it is needed
you can tell the condition of a society by looking at the condition of its people
I had vowed to never allow anybody to disrespect me through racism
I vowed not to sit around and allow it to happen to others
that mentality was bred within
the pain that I felt, the pain that my father felt
the pain will fuel you but it will haunt you as well
in this darkness we need to hear of shining light and victories
mass incarceration ends when society wants it to end
I, my, mine cannot exist
once we begin to empathize we begin to open ourselves up
to love what allows us to be free 

Cento: Omar

I think of the times I was
rejected because I was too dark
of the times I was hunted for sport
the countless times I suffered racist assaults and indignities
the anger and fear that I felt
drove me into hatred, mainly of myself
I resented God’s choice to make me
the hatred in me needed an external target
it became too heavy for me to hold
so I gave it back
I only hated myself more for what I had become: less human
I saw as the truth the face of that racist lie in mirrors looking back at me
I’m learning to forgive completely
I’m learning to love perfectly
the question is: did the system punish me justly?
I’m left in here to suffer until I die
the State intends only to warehouse me in a cell
until I’m ready for a box
but that is not a concern of the State
in the State’s own words:
to call the defendant an animal would be an insult to all subhuman species
complete dehumanization, the kind that only hate could muster

Throughout Fall 2021, Illinois Humanities will host virtual screenings of the Visions of Justice video series paired with panel discussions focused on the communities of Bloomington-Normal, Carbondale, Chicago, Decatur, East. St. Louis, Galesburg, and Urbana-Champaign. CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE SERIES AS IT UNFOLDS AND REGISTER FOR EVENTS.