A Letter to the City: "jail is not my home"

A Letter to the City: "jail is not my home", excerpt, 2021

A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home”

Circles & Ciphers - a hip hop based restorative justice organization in Rogers Park, Chicago  - and Chicago-based Dutch artist Kirsten Leenaars’ 2nd video project is based on letters received from people that are currently incarcerated. Weaving their deeply personal stories through performative actions and image making into our social fabric. The letters are the material for unexpected encounters to reflect on the ways the prison-industrial complex affects individuals, families, communities, a city.

For the video work we are collaborating closely with 15 selected letter writers who are currently incarcerated. Their letters form the main material for the video piece. Different excerpts from the letters and individual sentences are displayed through projections and site-specific mark making on walls, buildings, street surfaces, banners etc, throughout different neighborhoods in Chicago which our letter writers identified as their home communities. Community members respond in interviews to the displayed texts. Additionally, we recorded the letter writers over the phone - calling from Cook County - each reading their own letters. Young performers from Circles & Ciphers performed freestyle ‘serenades’ in front of Cook County Jail in response to a letter they selected. An airplane flew over Cook County Jail with a banner with the text (derived from one of the letters): jail is not my home. All these moments are documented and will be edited together as a letter to the city, amplifying and echoing the deeply personal stories and experiences of young people that are often marginalized in this society.

In addition to the video work we are producing a publication including all 46 letters that we received. The publication will be presented alongside the video during public screenings of the work. We see the publication as an important element of our project because it gives us more room to fully represent the multitude of experiences and perspectives that were captured in the letters. It will also serve as a tool for education and highlight restorative justice practices and inspire readers to imagine alternative models to the current criminal justice system and provide ways readers can become active contributors in this conversation.


Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.



AnnMarie Brown, director of operations, circle facilitator

Akeem Soyan, creative arts liaison, circle facilitator

Nikia Watkins, outreach, liberation intern 


Kirsten Leenaars is a Chicago based video artist. Through her work she examines how our collective imagination produces and shapes our lived realities. Leenaars engages with communities in long-term collaborative processes to explore how, through the co-creation of moving images, new forms of relating, being, and looking at the world can be imagined.

Artist Response Grant, DCASE

We’re happy to announce our selection as an Artist Response Program grant recipient from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for our Beyond the Box: Reimagining Freedom project! This funding will help us realize the project in the best possible and most meaningful ways. #DCASEgrants