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Presentation on incarceration, racism enlists county prosecutor for Knox College performance

Motus Theater - JustUs League.jpg
Rick Villarreal
/
Photo courtesy Motus Theater
Motus Theater JustUs monologists deliver their stories at the 2019 National Association for Community and Restorative Justice Conference in Denver.

A Colorado-based performance group that aims to raise awareness of inequities in the criminal justice system is bringing its national tour to the Knox College campus in Galesburg next week.

Motus Theater’s “JustUs” project features monologists sharing their experiences with incarceration and its collateral impacts. Knox County State’s Attorney Jeremy Karlin and Knox College President C. Andrew McGadney are also participating in this production.

Subtitled “Stories from the Frontlines of the Criminal Justice System,” the free presentation includes four monologists detailing how imprisonment impacted their lives and their families.

Juaquin Mobley is one of the monologists and also serves as a strategist for the program. Now the senior vice president of an organization in Denver called Community Works, Mobley previously served time for a drug conviction. He says his plight stemmed from the hardships he encountered as a biracial son of immigrants.

“For me and a lot of my colleagues, we’ve noticed that there’s nothing just about this system, right? There’s a lot of things that we are working to change – and I’m not an abolitionist; I’m not saying that by any means. But there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to go in there to correct some of the incorrections.”
Juaquin Mobley, JustUs monologist

“I am first-generation born here in America; my father is from the Dominican Republic. We experienced a lot of hard times growing up, but we had a lot of beautiful times,” said Mobley. “Within that, I’ve experienced the criminal injustice system for over nearly eight years, and as a result of that I’ve seen the impact it had on my friends, family, specifically my children.

“As a result of that, I wanted to share my story of not only what I went through, but how I was able to develop a process and a plan to come up out of there and do something positive.”

So why does Mobley refer to it as the criminal “injustice” system?

“For me and a lot of my colleagues, we’ve noticed that there’s nothing just about this system, right? There’s a lot of things that we are working to change – and I’m not an abolitionist; I’m not saying that by any means. But there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to go in there to correct some of the incorrections,” he said.

As the Knox County State’s Attorney, Jeremy Karlin admits there’s inequity throughout the criminal justice system.

“It is true; I mean, it’s just honest. As I walk into my courtrooms, I know the percentage of minorities in my community and I see an over-representation of black and brown faces in my courtrooms,” said Karlin. “So we are working with our local law enforcement to try to address that, as well as within my own office. We have new software that we’ve gotten to try to track outcomes to determine whether or not there’s a difference in what happens to people based on gender, class, or other immutable characteristics.

“My experience, at least here, is that no one wants to be a racist. So if our policies and procedures in my office have a racial impact – that people who are African-American get a different result than someone who’s Caucasian (or) if someone who’s rich gets a different result than someone who’s poor – we need to look at that, and we need to figure out what it is that we’re doing to rectify that.”

But Karlin also says there’s no easy or clear-cut solution to resolving those inequities.

“If you talk to 10 different prosecutors, you’ll get about 12 different or 14 different opinions about what they think works,” said Karlin. “There’s very little research or understanding about what it is that we do in a courtroom, what we should expect out of the courtroom, what the results should be.

“My experience, at least here, is that no one wants to be a racist. So if our policies and procedures in my office have a racial impact – that people who are African-American get a different result than someone who’s Caucasian (or) if someone who’s rich gets a different result than someone who’s poor – we need to look at that, and we need to figure out what it is that we’re doing to rectify that.”
Jeremy Karlin, Knox County State's Attorney

“But what we do know is this: Any type of contact with the criminal justice system is harmful. It’s harmful to particularly the defendants who are in the system. So if our goal is to try to make the community safer, the things that we do within the justice system have to be towards that goal.”

Kirsten Wilson, the artistic director for Motus Theater, says the mission of the JustUs Project is to provide an opportunity to examine the flaws in the system from a different perspective.

“At this time in our country, there are different leaders who hold different types of knowledge about how to move towards greater justice, greater humanity, greater equity,” said Wilson. “So if we can have this sense of shared storytelling and uplift the stories of people whose voices we don’t often hear, there’s a possibility that together as a country we can move forward more strategically to get to answers that actually create things like true public safety.”

Leanne Trapedo Sims is a professor of peace and justice at Knox College, where she teaches a course on mass incarceration in the U.S. She was awarded a $6,000 Envisioning Justice grant from Illinois Humanities to help fund the JustUs performance in Galesburg.

Trapedo Sims, who has a background in performance and previously worked on a show of monologues at a women’s prison in Hawaii, believes the event can raise awareness and dispel stereotypes.

“I really want to start having a wider conversation about these injustices and inequities and really having people talk in more direct ways about what’s going on,” she said. “I think this will be a fantastic opportunity for our students and for the wider community.”

Trapedo Sims says she does not agree with Karlin’s assertion that no one working in the criminal justice system wants to be a racist. She says the prison system is fraught with racial tension, pointing to what she calls an “extremely racialized environment” at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg as an example.

“I think we need to have like more honest conversations about race and racism,” she said. “I’m dealing with all these issues in my class; even the white students who consider themselves abolitionists, that position comes from a place of privilege. So I think it’s time to really have more difficult conversations about race, because I think race is that the underpinning of the criminal legal system, completely.”

Mobley agrees with that belief, based on his firsthand experiences.

“I’m dealing with all these issues in my class; even the white students who consider themselves abolitionists, that position comes from a place of privilege. So I think it’s time to really have more difficult conversations about race, because I think race is that the underpinning of the criminal legal system, completely.”
Leanne Trapedo Sims, Knox College professor

“The places I’ve been while incarcerated, there’s definitely racial undertones to any and everything that happens in there, and as a result of that, it creates this unneeded tension that creates a distressed state of mind,” said Mobley. “Everything from where you sit at a table to who you can actually be a cellmate with – everything.

“For instance, I’m half Hispanic and half Black. Coming through the doors, people noticed that because of my name and they told me I had to pick a side. So (I’m) dealing with that kind of stress, and then also having articulate to my family what that’s like. It gets to a point where you essentially have to choose one side of your family over the other in that instance.”

Mobley says he felt subjected to racism early on in his legal proceedings,

“When I was getting sentenced for my crime – which I did, and I fess up to that – there was two white gentleman that went in front of the judge before me with the very similar crimes,” said Mobley. “The only difference is they were actually on probation for a similar crime. They ended up getting six years and probation; I ended up getting 15 years.

“What I gathered from that whole situation was, the white kids – as I felt – when they went up there, they were looked at like they just made an honest mistake. Then I went up there, it was more along the lines of like, ‘well, you don’t come from a good family; this is going to be a reoccurring thing for you. So we’re going to go ahead and essentially make an example.’”

Karlin says the vast majority of people going through the court system are in need of some sort of help, either with mental issues or drug addiction. But he says the prosecutors’ offices and correctional facilities are battling what he calls an “extraordinary lack of resources.”

“Every day, I feel like I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said Karlin. “I don’t know who said it first, but I think it’s attributable to Arthur Ashe: ‘Do what you can with what you have and where you are.’ So that’s what we’re trying to do here and trying to create a system in which justice is achievable for everybody that’s involved with it – not just victims, not just the community, but also the defendants who either voluntarily or involuntarily are participating.”

Karlin says one reason he’s participating in the JustUs performance is to check on himself to make sure he’s being true and honest about the harmful nature of the criminal justice system.

“But it’s also just to remind myself that we are dealing with individuals, and we're dealing with humans, and if we expect people when they exit the criminal justice system to act responsibly, we have to treat them humanely while they're in the criminal justice system,” said Karlin. “So participating in this program is a firsthand reminder that we are dealing with human failings and human problems, and that we need to address those.”

Wilson says having people like Karlin and McGadney join Mobley and the other monologists gives the performance even more credence.

“There’s a lot of knowledge there, and unfortunately the citizens of our country don't have that same amount of knowledge. So they're really susceptible to things that sound like they feel good around (being) tough on crime and long sentences, because they want to be safe,” she said. “I can tell you all the monologists we work with who were formerly incarcerated were also victims of crimes in different times of their life. Nobody wants to be mugged, raped, shot at – nobody.

“What we think this program will do most strategically, is help both the young people and the citizens have the kind of information so we can be invested. If citizens would know about it, they would be better allies when they vote so that we actually have people who are holding the complexity of the criminal legal system and true public safety.”
Kirsten Wilson, Motus Theater artistic director

“What we think this program will do most strategically, is help both the young people and the citizens have the kind of information so we can be invested. If citizens would know about it, they would be better allies when they vote so that we actually have people who are holding the complexity of the criminal legal system and true public safety.”

Mobley says the most common misperception people have about incarcerated people is they lack intelligence, and he’s found it to be quite the opposite. He believes the JustUs performance will give people a better understanding of what life is like for those serving prison sentences.

“I think the best way that is going to open a lot of people’s eyes is allowing the people that were impacted by the criminal justice system to give context around what happened, whether it’s through their plight, whether what happened after they were incarcerated,” said Mobley. “All of that is meant to give people a little bit more insight on what led up to the particular situation and or after that situation. And with that context, people are going to start seeing the humanity in one another, in realizing that this individual (inherently) is not a criminal and his bad decision or her bad decision is not who that person is.”

Wilson notes the performance also incorporates live music by the acapella group Spirit of Grace mingled with the storytelling from the former inmates. She believes the show is both challenging and enlightening for the audience.

“It sounds really heady and it is; we hope people’s heads will be involved. But this is also an opportunity that we don’t get enough to be in our full humanity,” she said. “We’re not interested in the audience either going into despair, guilt or denial. What we want is to figure out: how do we uplift each other’s humanity?”

The Knox College performance of the JustUs Project is Tuesday at 12:45 p.m. in the Harbach Theater. A panel discussion with the monologists about how they developed their stories will follow.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.