Can Someone Reinvent the Past to Claim Redemption?

Will society allow a convicted felon claim redemption after reimagining his past? Or are facts more powerful than who he has become?

  • Reflection comes easily while spending time in a cage.
    Photo by Fotolia/sakhorn38
  • With plenty of time to reflect behind bars, memories may become obscured.
    Cover courtesy AK Press

Angels with Dirty Faces (AK Press, 2016), by Walidah Imarisha is no romanticized tale of crime and punishment. The three lives in this creative nonfiction account are united by the presence of actual harm — sometimes horrific violence. Imarisha, dealing with the complexities of her own experience with sexual assault and accountability, brings us behind prison walls to visit her adopted brother Kakamia and his fellow inmate Jimmy “Mac” McElroy, a member of the brutal Irish gang the Westies. Together they explore the questions: People can do unimaginable damage to one another — and then what? What do we as a society do? What might redemption look like?

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My adopted brother Kakamia Jahad Imarisha is charming, charismatic, and complicated — riddled with gaps of darkness and pain that twenty-five years in prison have carved into him. These chasms have been left by being arrested at sixteen and charged as an adult. A sentence of fifteen-to-life hanging like a broken arm. Slowly, these gaps are filled in with fear: the thought of dying in prison floods into the void left as each passing year drains away.

During one visit Kakamia, who never seems to change in my eyes, pointed to his head. “I’m getting old, Wa,” he moaned. For the first time, I saw swathes of gray glistening in the black. It scared me more than it scared him.

Survival in prison is a stroll on a razor blade. Kakamia calls it “a warehouse for people society does not want. Amistad for today,” referencing the famous slave ship where the captured Africans rebelled. You are not meant to survive — not whole, not sane, not with a loving heart. Those who do survive find whatever means they can. To make it, you have to rebuild yourself: rebuild the old you, whatever flaws and weaknesses you brought in, mortar in the gaps of the wall. It’s a never-ending job. Each day new holes are smashed in by the confinement, the inhumanity, the unnaturalness of everything that touches your skin or your tongue, that reaches your eyes or your ears, that lives under your skin and comes out when you’re sleeping late at night, the lights from the tier burning behind your eyelids.

My brother recreated himself so fully, for years I did not know where the renovations took place. In the shadow of prison, I have had to confront my assumptions, my own weaknesses. I have had to force myself to see the person Kakamia was, the person he has become, and explore the fault lines between what is fact and what is true. I’ve had to learn these are not always the same thing.

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