"Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind's in another world, thinkin'
"How can we exist through the facts?"
- Nas, “One Love”
In 2015, at the age of 34, I was a long way from experiencing the world and hip hop through the donated perspective of my brother, Kia. By then, I’d earned a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and had cultivated more than a decade-long career working in criminal and juvenile justice. I even had a five-year-old daughter of my own who I was attempting to introduce to “real” hip hop, courtesy of the Nas Pandora station. In fact, on this particular day in September, I was listening to “One Love” on Pandora and rushing up the Westside Highway to pick her up from school when my past and present collided.
Halfway through the song, I realized that my understanding of the song and, in turn, the criminal justice system was no longer tied solely to Kia’s lessons. In gifting me that law dictionary as a child, Kia unconsciously accelerated my desire to understand the criminal justice system. He also taught me to think deeper and to challenge the status quo; in effect, shaping my mind. It was my middle brother, Rome, however, who would shape my heart. Rome is the reason why I have an emotional understanding of how the criminal justice system affects the entire family.
When a person is incarcerated, their loved ones are also sentenced. Their family carries an emotional burden that is often magnified by shame, financial strain, and in some cases, physical limitations. It is not uncommon for families with incarcerated loved ones to relocate (or remain in the same state) based on their proximity to the prison. Closer proximity can save a lot of money on costs associated with commuting to and from the prison, which can also mean more opportunities to visit a loved one. More visits usually equal fewer phone calls. In some prisons or jails, a phone call from an inmate can cost the families nearly $1.00 per minute in fees alone. You can avoid the frequency of those expensive phone calls if you maintain regular visitation.
I didn’t know about the complexities of visitations and phone call costs before having a loved one incarcerated, but Rome was my introduction to this life. Consequently, like Nas, I grew to fully understand the importance of supporting incarcerated loved ones while in prison. Support was even more essential when they were in one of the most abusive jails in New York – Rikers Island.
“Wildin' on the Island, but now in Elmira
Better chill, ‘cause them niggas will put that ass on fire”
- Nas, “One Love”
In 2017, people outside of hip hop became familiar with the jail Nas rapped about in “One Love,” when Jay-Z helped produce a docuseries entitled, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He’d partnered with filmmaker Spike Lee to bring mainstream attention to what those of us in the hood have always known. Rikers is one of the most notorious jails in the country, and stories of the abuses inside have always plagued Black communities.
Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was unjustly arrested and sent to Rikers Island to await trial. On Browder’s first day there, surveillance footage shows him enduring severe beatings from correction officers. He was later starved and tortured, all without being charged with a crime. During his time at Rikers, he spent more than 800 days in solitary confinement. His trial was repeatedly delayed and because his family could not afford bail, he remained in Rikers waiting, still proclaiming his innocence. Three years later, the case was dismissed. Shortly after he was released and returned home to his community, he hung himself.
Kalief Browder’s story is undeniably tragic. However, it’s only “eye-opening” for people removed from the mental turmoil of incarceration. As someone who both works in criminal justice and has an incarcerated loved one, my understanding of prison’s effect on those inside and those left behind is thick. My understanding is layered with facts and statistics and wrapped around emotions so viscous that I could suffocate in a soundless scream if I didn’t write it. A death so awful that it still seems preferable to witnessing life steadily dimming in the eyes of the people you love – the "Romes" and "Kaliefs" of the world.
How do you fully comprehend a physical body released from prison, well after its soul has been murdered inside? The pain that accompanies this knowledge isn’t secondhand and coping with it certainly wasn’t taught while I was earning those degrees. Between beats and bars, both Kia and Nas tried to educate me on the effects of incarceration; yet “existing through the facts” is a reality you must live to understand.