The voice on the phone radiates hope. It is warm, buoyant, and tinged with both joy and sadness. Like the voice in Maya Angelou’s famous poem, this caged bird sings of freedom.
Kevin Reese was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1986 at the height of the crack epidemic and is part of a wave of black men incarcerated during the Reagan and Clinton eras. His crimes are numerous, but he says, “I didn’t know no better. My mom was addicted to crack and I grew up with my grandmother. She had a sixth-grade education and was poor like the rest of us. I don’t ever remember seeing anybody get up and go to a job where I lived.”
Reese’s cousins and friends fell into patterns that were part of a survival strategy. “We had to figure out how to make it another way,” he says. The “other way” involved criminal activity — with victims who were also from their primarily poor communities — and eventually Reese paid the price. In 2005, at the age of 18, he was convicted of aiding and abetting a 2nd degree murder and was sent to Stillwater State Prison.
But no one is born a criminal. Instead, the criminal skill set is learned behavior that begins in the home, on the streets and in school, of all places. The elementary school that Kevin attended in South Minneapolis contained all the hallmarks of prison, and there he learned that he was no longer viewed as a kid coming of age, prone to mistakes and worthy of forgiveness.