Since 2019, the Illinois Prison Project (IPP) has striven to challenge the systemic racism, excessive sentences, and lack of compassion that characterize mass incarceration in Illinois. Through direct representation, advocacy, and education, the organization works in partnership with incarcerated people to ensure that our criminal legal system acknowledges people can evolve and grow — and that their sentences should reflect that. Last year, IPP helped secure the release of 43 people from incarceration, saving their clients a collective 200 years that would have been spent in prison.
Arnold Ventures sat down with Renaldo Hudson, director of education at IPP, to discuss his organization’s work and why we need to do a better job providing second chances for people involved with the justice system. This interview is part of an ongoing Second Chance Month series highlighting leaders working to provide opportunities for redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration for those with a criminal record.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about the Illinois Prison Project. What problem are you trying to address and how do you approach solving it?
We focus on systemic problems with respect to mass incarceration and work to bring people home from perpetual punishment. I’m fortunate as someone who is directly affected and who served 37 years in prison. Through the amazing work of the Illinois Prison Project, Gov. Pritzker granted my commutation and let me go home in 2020. We use the clemency application process as a way to share the stories of our incarcerated population. For the first time, my story was told rather than my case being litigated.
I’m now the director of education here, and my job is to promote practicing restorative justice, rather than punitive justice. We go out and tell the stories of what happened with the Renaldo Hudsons and Anthony Joneses of the world.
Why is it so important to provide another chance for people currently incarcerated, and how do you think we should consider second chances in the context of rehabilitation?
Even though I’m responsible for the offense that sent me to prison, I am not the offense. Many of us say, “We’ll give someone a chance if they are rehabilitated.” But I would argue you can’t rehabilitate someone who was never given opportunities in the first place.
This is why I like to push the narrative of not just second chances but fair chances. I feel like I started off without having a chance and only received my first chance when I got clemency. I was able to walk out of prison with the ability to read and write — something I lacked when I entered the Department of Corrections.
I’m also working to challenge the dangerous argument behind merit-based release. I had the privilege of getting access to education in prison, but that isn’t the reality for a majority of the people who are incarcerated. So when people point out individuals who have been rehabilitated, those lucky few likely had opportunities that a majority don’t get to enjoy. That does not mean that people are not ready to be free. It simply means that so many people haven’t been given a fair chance to develop into the person — and the potential leader — so many of us have the potential to become.
What do “fair chances” and “second chances” mean to you and what do they look like? What kind of opportunities should we extend to folks?
A fair chance is for me to walk out of prison — a very dark and nasty place — and be accepted back into society, to strive to be the best me, and to be free. And being free means I have the opportunity to work, access to housing, and access to health care. Take the lock off of that apartment building door and give me access to an apartment. Remove the security guard from in front of the college and allow me to walk on those grounds where I can see the potential.
To me, second chances are steps that allow me to see and realize my own potential. It is no one else’s responsibility to get me to success, but at least give me a chance to see what I can strive for.
To me, second chances are steps that allow me to see and realize my own potential. It is no one else’s responsibility to get me to success, but at least give me a chance to see what I can strive for.Renaldo Hudson director of education at Illinois Prison Project
What do you see as some of the chief misconceptions people have that make them wary of extending second chances to people involved with the justice system? How do we address them?
We are given a scarlet letter that follows us wherever we go. What I think people miss is that there are so many people who are incarcerated who are ready to do the right thing. We’re brothers, uncles, fathers, cousins, and ministers.
I would like if people could see that the fact I made a bad decision doesn’t mean I’m a walking bad decision. And the use of terms like “offenders” implies that we’re a walking opportunity to stumble, rather than people who made a bad decision.
One of the narratives that has been pushed really hard by the punitive justice space is “You’re the offense, and you will forever be the offense.” They try to put us in a time capsule of that moment. A big part of my job is to crack open those time capsules, and say, “Hey, it’s 2022, and you want to keep me in 1983. I’m sorry, I wasn’t the best possible person I can be. But if you can give me a fair chance, I can start walking towards success.” I am responsible for the offense and am not the offense.
We’ve talked about the moral reasons for providing second chances and restoring people’s dignity, but there’s also a racial justice issue at play here. Could you talk about that?
Our justice system has villainized people of color, particularly Black men. It’s so much easier to forgive someone that looks like you. When that person gets in trouble, a judge might think “He looks like my grandson. I’m sure he just made a mistake.”
In 1983, nobody in the courtroom deciding my fate looked like me. I’ve watched hundreds of people experience that when I was in the penitentiary. I’d say 90% of the staff was Caucasian while 80% of the prison population was Black. And so what happens is that people experience race as “us against them.”
This bleeds out into society in a way that people don’t want to talk about. But we get to talk about that at the Illinois Prison Project. We’re able to go into spaces and inform people about why we need education over incarceration. I truly believe placing restorative justice over punitive justice is the only way we will see our criminal legal system become a criminal justice system.
With the recent increase in crime rates, there’s been a lot of pushback against criminal justice reform efforts. How would you explain to someone concerned about crime the merits of providing fair and second chances?
First of all, I think that is horrible that people are subject to being victimized. But I also think that fear mongers have taken control of the conversation. In the 37 years I spent in prison, I never met one person who had a good understanding of the law. In fact, most of us learned the law many years into our incarceration. So coming back with more laws and more punishment does not deter people. What it does is make politicians feel good, so that they can say, “Oh, we did something.” In reality, they’ve done little to increase safety.
We need more restorative justice. People are being made to feel like they don’t have a stake in our society. And when people feel like they don’t have a stake, they act out. That’s why my job is so vitally important, because I get to go out and push against that dangerous fear-mongering narrative that “If you don’t punish and make stricter laws, then people will be running loose in the city.” Research shows that the “old timers” in the system serving long sentences have extremely low recidivism rates.
Don’t forget that good people make bad decisions. And we should give people a chance to be corrected.