An impassioned look inside the lives of a few inmates, “flawed, damaged, and culpable, but still human.”
In her unconventional examination of two individuals—her adopted brother and a notorious mobster—with complicated criminal records and histories of incarceration, poet, activist, and educator Imarisha (Scars/Stars, 2013, etc.) offers raw, breathing portraits of human fallibility as well as a searingly candid look at her own life: her radical evolution since reading Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row as a biracial teenager growing up in a small town and her early development of a “mass of contradictions and complexities: colors that clash and fight for dominance.” Through a newspaper advertisement, the then-15-year-old author befriended Kakamia Jahad Imarisha, a white Puerto Rican youth originally from Brooklyn, in jail for conspiracy to commit murder. Kakamia had moved with his mother to California in the 1980s and gotten caught up in a contract murder of a friend’s parents, eventually serving 25 years in California prisons. The author and Kakamia became kindred spirits. Imarisha does not sugarcoat the crime, yet her depiction of her adopted brother’s “soul-crushing” despair, his stifling, dangerous, gang-driven life in prison, and redeeming discovery and mastery of art, as well as her own emotionally fraught visits to him, provide a poignant look inside the lives of people we would rather not see or hear about. Similarly, through the account of former hit man Jimmy “Mac” MacElroy, whom she originally interviewed as a journalist, Imarisha records the life of a once-fascinating mobster washed up in his 60s and largely without hope. In between these moving accounts, the author inserts her own story of assault by a boyfriend and eventual abortion in order to grapple with the issues of accountability and forgiveness. She embraces the human side of criminals beyond the statistics (the title derives from the 1938 James Cagney film) and sets forth alternatives to brutal incarceration that involve “transformative justice.”
A brave, honest search for answers regarding incarceration.