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Learning and Liberation

“It’s no surprise we don’t want to give people a second chance, because too often we’re overwhelmed with being unforgiving.”

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On September 2, 2020 — almost exactly one year ago — Renaldo Hudson was released from the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois. He was 56 and had spent 37 years incarcerated, 13 of them on death row. Governor J.B. Pritzker granted his clemency petition, one of more than 50 granted by Pritzker during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hudson had been convicted of the June 6, 1983, murder of Folke Petersen, who was 72 years old. Petersen was stabbed numerous times in the course of a robbery. Hudson was 19 years old at the time.

Now the education director at the Illinois Prison Project, Hudson shared with Inquest his reflections on violence, prisons, and the vital importance of education and support for those incarcerated. The account, as told to Premal Dharia on August 16, 2021, via Zoom, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

My name is Renaldo Hudson. I am 57 years old. I live in the city of Chicago in what’s referred to as the Pilsen area. I’ve been home almost a year now.

I came home from a very long experience in the Department of Corrections — 37 years.  I spent seven years in Cook County jail, 13 years on Illinois death row, and 17 years serving life without the possibility of parole. When I think about my story I think it’s imperative that I share with people that I’m responsible for the reason I went to prison. I made a decision that caused someone to lose their life.

I was 19 when I was incarcerated and I have to honestly tell you this: At the age of 19, I had the mental capacity of a 13-year-old. I was functionally illiterate, I had mental trauma since the age of 6. By the time I was 19 years old, I had been shot by a family member, seen my own family murdered in front of me, was being sex-trafficked, and was homeless. I was using drugs to try to control the pain of those layers of trauma, which affected the way I thought and perceived the world. That was my life when I committed my crime; it was the product of trauma, and of a misguided effort to survive.

In 2020, I was granted clemency by Governor Pritzker, my governor. Jenny Soble, the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, which represents people in the Illinois Department of Corrections who are serving long sentences, agreed to come and visit me at Danville Correctional Center. And when we met it was an instance of, “I love this guy, I want to work to help you.” Then COVID hit, the pandemic hit, and Jenny decided, “I’m not gonna wait. I’m gonna file a clemency petition on your behalf.” Less than six months after she filed it, Governor Pritzker granted it. Jenny gave me a job the next day at the Illinois Prison Project. She said, “I believe that formerly incarcerated people are the best people to promote and share with the world why you deserve a second chance.” From the day of my release to this day, I have been an advocate on behalf of incarcerated people across the country. Every chance I get to speak, I do it. I do this because I understand many people have voices, but they don’t have a platform. 

You cannot flatten the conversation around violence to a single moment in a person’s life.

We treat violence like a moment in time that traps a person forever. But violence does not exist in a vacuum. Violence is a byproduct of the unmet basic needs in communities. You cannot flatten the conversation around violence to a single moment in a person’s life. I was sent to prison over a violent offense, but I stopped being a violent offender over 25 years ago. But when you talk about violent offenses, people say things like, “Murderer. He murdered someone.” That sets the bar at: You can never be better because of this decision that you made. 

People commit crimes that range from nonviolent to violent, and people’s capacity for violence changes over time depending on the trauma and violence they experience in their own communities. And so we have to recognize that people who commit violent offenses can and do begin to walk in the other direction. And we have to be honest with people about that. Violence is not something we’re going to end because it’s mainly impulsive behavior made in response to trauma. Once violence has happened, it has happened. You can’t pull it back. But you can recover, and that’s what they don’t want you to know — the people in power, the people running the criminal legal system and creating the narrative. They don’t want us to talk about it. To them, if you commit this violent offense, you’re forever a violent, unredeemable person. 

I think we should end life without the possibility of parole because it’s the death penalty on layaway. Back in the day, they used to say I’m gonna put it on layaway and I’m gonna get it by Christmas. And so life without the possibility of parole is the death penalty on layaway. If you’re saying that it’s morally wrong to kill, then you should be against life without parole. It is part of the killing business just as much as the death penalty is.  Life without parole is the state saying we’ll kill you slowly through the oppression of corrections. No, stop! 

We’re an ugly-headed, mean-spirited, vicious nation. So it’s no surprise we don’t want to give people a second chance, because too often we’re overwhelmed with being unforgiving. We also have a system that’s designed where judges cannot revisit old sentences. So for example, if I do 20 years and I start doing all the good stuff, and I accomplish all the things expected of someone, there’s no mechanism for me to go back to the court and say, “Hey, excuse me. Twenty years ago I committed this crime, but please release me now.” Mercy doesn’t have a place in the court process, and that’s always a problem. What we call justice is simply revenge. 

I want to at least be able to read the documents that say you’re going to execute me.

When I came into jail, imagine this: I couldn’t read or write. And so I was constantly in a space of insecurity. A lot of my earlier behavior was predicated around that reality. So if you said read, I would punch, so that you don’t know that I can’t read. Because it’s seen as a vulnerability or a weakness. I spent seven years in a county jail. One day, I got a dictionary and one brother sat with me and helped me learn how to look up words in the dictionary and break them down into syllables. It was a long, slow process.

And so when I went to death row, which was in 1990, I began to request formal school. I remember one of the deputy directors said to me, “Renaldo, why would we educate you when we’re going to execute you?” And I was like, “OK, but I want to at least be able to read the documents that say you’re going to execute me.” I was told that there were documents from the honorable Illinois Supreme Court determining that I qualified to be executed. I couldn’t read them. So I wanted to be able to learn how what happened to me happened. I wanted to better understand. I wanted to figure out how I could be a part of breaking the cycle. 

Because I committed a horrific act, I started looking at my family to try to trace this back. My grandfather also committed horrific acts, but he wasn’t convicted because he ran from down south. And so I saw a tree of behavior. My uncles were violent. My mother was violent. People were just violent. I was raised in a violent environment, so when you constantly see violence, it becomes normal. And I recognized that reality as I became more conscious of who I was — who I am — and so I went from not being able to read and write, to being able to read and learn about my history. 

I also started working to build programs for others while I was in prison. The first program I came up with was called Unleash the Power and was predicated around having discussions with young men and women that were on the brink of going to prison. But they had not been sentenced yet. It wasn’t a scared-straight program; it was simply a sobering conversation, like, “Hey, I took this route and here’s where I ended up.” That was until the Department of Corrections decided that that program contradicted the sentence that I had.

Think about that. A program that was designed to help young men and women stop coming to prison, with discussions led by people like me on death row, and the Department of Corrections said that does not fit their image of death-row inmates. Let someone else do that. Their view was, “How are we going to justify that, when there’s nothing redeemable about this person? That’s why we are executing them. Now, wait a minute. They’re stepping outside of themselves and trying to help someone else?” That implies that there’s some humanity there. There’s something. There’s some life there that may need to be preserved. But they didn’t want that message to be out. So the program was shut down. 

Education is a liberator.

But I still began to work to develop it. I just kept thinking, “I want to be better, I want to be better, I want to be better.” I wanted to read so I began to read everything. I read Crime and Punishment. I wanted to understand, what are these big ideas about social development? I read a book called Anatomy of the State that changed my life because it showed me the spine of the criminal legal system and how its tentacles linger and attach to people. So even when you think you’ve gotten away from the state, when you’ve finished your sentence, a tentacle is still sticking there. Instead of an inmate, you become a parolee. The criminal legal system needs people to be continually in its network. It’s not breeding to produce life. It’s  a parasite that takes the life from you. It cannot exist without bodies. 

I’m big on the importance of education, because education is a liberator. I’ve talked to so many people incarcerated and I’ve never met one person who said, “Oh yeah, I dreamed of being a prisoner as a kid.” And so I started asking questions as I started thinking about developing programs, and what I discovered was that most of my peers had never been inspired to be better than what they saw. They were restricted by the environment that was saturated with puss, that was saturated with feces, that was saturated with all the nasty stuff, and they were acting like it was normal because that’s all they knew. And it was only when we started to wash away some of that, to cleanse ourselves — with religion, with philosophy, and with just wanting to be better — that we began to see, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s not the true picture of me. That’s something I did. That’s not who I am.” 

I find it funny when people say, “You don’t talk like you’ve been in prison.” I’m like, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Some of the smartest people I know are still sitting in cells. You can’t feed a system that is built around bodies by revealing that fact to people — that people in prison are the products of our environments and that we can change. Our system can’t do that because it wouldn’t exist. You have to make monsters out of people. And when you make monsters out of people, it’s easy to write them off. He’s a monster. She’s a monster. Why would you ever talk about them being free again? They’re monsters. But then when you look up, you say, “Why is this person able to speak the way he does — to speak so movingly? We’ve been told he is a monster.”

The system can’t run without us.

One of the things I figured out with my partners and peers was that the system can’t run without us. Like from the very basics of meals to bathrooms it’s literally like little plantations. Each prison. And it’s predicated around the idea that you’re less than society. You’re not equal to anyone. Buffalo Soldiers got $10 during the Civil War; I was getting $10 a month at my last job in the Department of Corrections. Financially, the government benefits from keeping that in place, and corrections benefits from it because people are earning salaries and they’re getting free labor. 

You start recognizing that this labor is the heartbeat of the prison. If you remove the heartbeat, you have no existence. And once you get that, it’s like, “Oh, so they don’t want to change that.” When you look at where every prison is in Illinois — I can’t speak of any other states — they’re all pretty much planted in areas where industry left. And then all of the people that work in the prisons  are being conditioned to think, “You’re better than all these people here in prison. So always make sure they know it.”

And so your philosophy is to keep people oppressed and suppressed, while getting as much out of them as you can. Go clean up. Go mop. Go sweep. Go cook my meal. The officers’ chow hall had incarcerated citizens cooking their meals. The warden’s office is cleaned by the incarcerated citizen. I mean everything about it, with the exception of walking the perimeters of the prison, which is done by guards. That’s the hardest thing they do. And so the system — when you start talking about clinical services, when you talk about mental health — all the people in there are trained to despise the people they’re supposed to be serving, because you want to keep them on that tier: You’re less than us. If you go to healthcare, you’re treated as less than. If you go to the barbershop: Well, what do you want? Who approved you to be here? All of that philosophy is about control. Prison staff are trained to see us as less-than so that they can justify our continued oppression. 

And if you control the way I think, you get control of my actions. If we are really committed to the idea that people are redeemable, we would do everything we can to help lift people in prison up. So the people who are the problem for me now are those in authority who are choosing not to turn those spaces — the prisons — into universities. 

Image: Unsplash