Liza Jessie Peterson by Yoshinori Hashimoto
By Sharon Pendana 

Liza Jessie Peterson is an "artivist," her art and her activism conjoined. With a deep sense of justice, it is her Libran calling to balance its scales. "I’m an artist, but my advocacy is channeled through my art," she says. "Everything I write about, everything I perform is through that lens." Her decades-long entrenchment in the carceral system spans from making the trek upstate from her Brooklyn home to visit her jailed former lover to teaching incarcerated youths at New York City's notorious Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

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These experiences inform her profound one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot,exploring the human impact of mass incarceration, not just on inmates, but their intimates who brave the cramped, hours-long bus rides to prison visits in revolutionary acts of loyalty and commitment, "navigating love between barbed wire." She toured the show to over 30 prisons across the country to standing ovations and black power salutes before premiering it to the general public in a sold-out run at Harlem’s National Black Theatre.


In All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, Liza mines her old journals and indelible memories to deftly chronicle her experience of being the classroom teacher, all day from 7:50 am - 2:30 pm to adolescent boys locked in a system more punitive than rehabilitative. With humor and pathos, she gives voice to these young men swept into the penal maelstrom and exposes the glaring disparity in corrections approaches between kids of color and white.

She started working at Rikers Island in 1998 to conduct a poetry workshop and was surprised to discover "the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of Black and Latino adolescents" incarcerated there. She says, 
"It was astounding! I wasn't aware of the prison industrial complex— it was not in the zeitgeist— this was 1998. Mass incarceration was not even a phrase that people used back then. I was going in without any context. I had no idea about the cash bail system; I had no idea about the privatization of prisons. A corrections officer pointed to the boys and referred to them as the ‘new cotton’– that I was working on the plantation and the boys were the crops."
She would learn that Black and Latino children are targeted for arrest and criminalized for typical adolescent behavior. 
"Adolescents are always going to buck up against the system; they are still going to challenge authority. They are going through a stage of psychological differentiation separation, where they are exerting their independence, moving away from family toward friends and testing boundaries. It's a natural phase of adolescent development."
While working with incarcerated adolescent girls, she learned that most had histories of sexual abuse. "A lot of their acting-out comes from the unhealed wounds and unaddressed trauma in their lives," she says. As rampant revelations of sexual assault surface in this country, Liza hopes that "this heightened national dialogue will give young girls the courage to come forward and speak out about what has happened to them and know that it isn't their fault; their cries are valid, and they have support." She says that although women who have spoken out about it have been "dismissed, ignored, denied, chastised, threatened and attacked, now we’re seeing the tide turning, and men are being called to task and being held accountable for their reprehensible behavior."

She remains hopeful that the social justice pendulum will swing toward what is right and just—that the normalization of sexual misconduct will reverse, and prison reforms put an end to race-based arrests and draconian sentencing. She shares how others can effect change: "first people need to get educated on what white supremacy is — what it looks like and how it works. And vote, not just in the big elections, but the smaller local elections, too." She adds that many community-based organizations rely on donations to keep their doors open. "There are organizations already on the ground doing the work. If you have money, find out who they are and support them. Of philanthropist Agnes Gund's recent endowment she adds, "Be like Agnes; write a check."


An "interrupter of recidivism," Liza stays in contact with several of the kids and works to help them once they are released. "I’m always going to have that connection to the youth–helping them to stay alive and free and out of the grip of the criminal justice system. But I’m an artist first. I’m creating; I’m writing plays, I’m writing books, I’m writing content for television that will encapsulate my advocacy."

Photo: Garlia C. Jones-Ly


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Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DC and on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.
LaVerne Knighten & Son Willie Knighten
By Erickka Sy Savané

African Americans are only 13% of the American population but make up the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated, according to a study conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations on race and wrongful convictions. Blacks constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the Registry (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large scale police scandals and later cleared in “group exonerations.” This racial disparity exist for all major crime categories, but the report focused on the three types of crimes producing the largest numbers of exonerations in the Registry: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.

This, however, was not on Laverne Knighten's mind in 1996, when her oldest son, Willie Knighten, was issed a life sentence in connection with a drive-by murder in Toledo, Ohio. For any mom this would be devastating news, but what made it even worse was the she knew deep in her heart that her son was innocent.
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Her first reaction was to blame herself, perhaps if she and her husband hadn’t both worked full-time time jobs she could have stayed home and things might have turned out different. Or maybe she should have been stricter when she realized that he was going astray. Eventually, she was able to see that she had a choice in how she was going to deal with his life sentence and it was a series of choices that kept her sane throughout the years he served in prison, leading to the day he was released.

The first choice that 50-something year-old Laverne made following the sentencing of her son was deciding to end the pity party that had been going full-blast since the moment he was convicted. It was a co-worker at the factory where she worked, who was relentless in getting Laverne to see that blaming herself for what happened was ultimately going to destroy her. She says,
“In time, I was able to accept what happened and let God take care of the things that I could not change. I knew that Willie didn’t kill that man, but I had to look at some of the things that he did do. I knew that he was running the streets and doing drugs, so I realized that it could be much worse. At least in prison, I wouldn’t have to worry about a phone call in the middle of the night telling me that I would have to go identify my son.”
Now that Laverne had accepted the situation for what it was, she was able to take the next step. She became ‘Little Willie’s’ biggest supporter, along with her husband of 47 years, Pastor Willie Knighten, and tons of church members and friends. They wrote letters to the judge, signed petitions and showed up to one of Little Willie’s hearings via chartered bus, determined to do whatever it would take to free Willie.

Laverne and her crew were no joke. But still, the years passed, each one packed with holidays, special moments, and the two toddlers that Willie left behind growing up fast. What does that do to mother’s  faith? For Laverne, the passing years brought with it the opportunity to make another choice.

“I told myself that God may not always be there right when you want him, but he’s always on time. I believed everyday that went by, we were getting closer to the time when he’d be coming home.”

About six years into Willie’s sentence, Laverne received an unexpected phone call from the mother of the man Willie was convicted of murdering. She told Laverne that she didn’t believe that her son had killed her son and it had been weighing heavily on her mind. She was sorry, and wanted to arrange a meeting with the Judge.

For Laverne this looked like a turning point. Was it the answer to her prayers? With a mix of anticipation and excitement they met with the Judge, armed with information that the victim’s mom had never presented before. However, things didn’t go quite as planned. The Judge had doubts. Why hadn’t she presented this information earlier? For now, Willie would remain behind bars. Laverne was devastated again. But again she had a choice to make.

So she dug her heels in deeper, throwing even more love and support behind Willie, making sure that she and her husband were there for every single visit, whether he was at a facility right in Toledo where they lived, or moved to a prison a few hours away. It was during those visits that she became aware that many of the inmates didn’t have the support that she was giving Willie. In fact, Willie told her that some inmates were committing suicide from being abandoned by friends and family. LaVerne wasn’t having any of that, and became a surrogate mother to some of Willie’s friends.

“My husband and I sent packages and little things to the inmates that didn’t have anyone. Sometimes we sent money. One of his friend’s mom had died was while he was locked up, so I adopted him as my son. If you got a loving heart you know that God is going to bless you regardless. It seemed like every time we reached out to them God blessed us more.”

Lifted by his mom’s unwavering support, Willie joined in on the fight, writing letters to the judge, re-proclaiming his innocence, presenting him with new evidence whenever there was a change to the story, which by that time, was happening with greater frequency. More witnesses began coming forward, changing their testimonies, at one point the judge ordered Willie to take a polygraph (lie detector) test, which he passed three times. Even though polygraph tests results aren’t admissible in court, they did however, place doubt in the judge’s mind. Had he unfairly convicted Willie?

Twelve years into Willie’s life sentence, the Judge was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before dying, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the Ohio Parole Board stating that he believed he was wrong in convicting Willie of murder, and in good conscious he could not leave this earth without informing them. Shortly after he died, and sure enough the Governor of Ohio granted Willie Executive Clemency. After serving almost 13 years, Willie was free.

And what did it mean to his mother?

“It meant a new beginning for the whole family, and more importantly for Willie, as I was able to share with him what I learned during those 13 years. He could be anything that he wanted to be; it’s all a matter of choice. ”

This month marks the six-year anniversary that Willie was released from prison. As of today, he is an anti-gang activist who mentors at-risk youth, he sits on the board of directors for the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio, and serves as a member of the African American Leadership Caucus (AALC). To hear more about his story, check out his Toledo TedX Talk.

This article appeared on Madamenoire.com

Do you know someone wrongly imprisoned?

Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of CurlyNikki.com, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in Essence.comEbony.com, Madamenoire.com, xoNecole.com, and more. When she’s not writing...wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or ErickkaSySavane.com