A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home”, the second project of collaborators artist Kirsten Leenaars and restorative justice organization Circles&Ciphers started with an open call for letters from individuals who are currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail (Chicago). They received 46 letters, and each letter writer was compensated for their creative efforts. Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers then collaborated closely with 15 selected letter writers to create a documentary video piece.
Weaving their deeply personal stories through performative actions and image making, the video asks the viewer to reflect on the ways the prison-industrial complex affects individuals, families, communities and a city. Footage includes excerpts from the letters displayed on walls, buildings and street surfaces throughout different neighborhoods in Chicago identified by the letter writers as their home communities; interviews with community members responding to the letters’ text; recorded audio of the letter writers reading their own letters over the phone while calling from Cook County Jail; a performance by Circles & Ciphers youth of freestyle ‘serenades’ in front of the jail; and an airplane flying over Cook Country Jail with a banner featuring the phrase excerpted from one of the letters: jail is not my home. All these moments are documented and are 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 documentary, Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers produced the publication Till My Feet Hit the Warm Concrete: Letters from Young People Incarcerated, which includes all 46 letters they received. The letters contain poems, hip-hop verses, personal stories and philosophical reflections on the notion of freedom within the context of America. The publication is an important element of their project because it fully represents the multitude of experiences and perspectives that were expressed in the letters. It also serves as an educational tool, as it highlights restorative justice practices and inspires readers to imagine alternative models to the current criminal justice system while providing concrete ways that readers can become active contributors to this conversation.
The publication is designed by Sonia Yoon and was made possible with support of the DCASE Artist Response Grant (2021) and with support of the Embassy of The Netherlands in DC.
Link to video excerpt documentary: A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home”
Link to PDF publication: Till My Feet Hit the Warm Concrete: Letters from Young People Incarcerated