When Sam Castro was three years old, he was shot in the arm outside his home on Chicago’s Northwest side. He remembers the chaos in the aftermath, how his mother and grandmother screamed when he walked over and told them what had happened. He also remembers that after the initial shock of the whole thing, nobody ever spoke to him about it again.
Castro, 45, said that the incident loomed large in his childhood. Seeing violence so early in his life led him on the path to crime and eventually to prison.
He shared the story as part of a facilitated conversation in April called “From Incarceration to Peacemaking,” which aimed to describe the root causes of violence. The event was hosted by Envisioning Justice, an organization devoted to encouraging Chicagoans to think about the impacts of the criminal justice system on communities around the city and imagine what reforms to the system might look like.
“The whole point of Envisioning Justice is to try and see what the arts and humanities can do to make criminal justice reform a city-wide issue, but also to really involve people who aren’t usually involved and get them to envision what a different system would look like,” said Elliot Heilman, an organizer of the event.
Castro and two other men spoke to an audience of about 15 teen- agers who were members of The Peace Exchange, a Chicago organization that educates teenagers about topics ranging from restorative justice to teen dating violence with the hope that they be- come peace lead- ers in their own communities.
Henry Cervantes, a pro- gram manager for Peace Exchange, who facilitated the talk, said that these conversations were important because they “can transform our own perceptions of the world and can change our views on reality.”
Cervantes grew up in spaces greatly impacted by violence and incarceration. “My earliest childhood memories were that of my mother and sisters and I being beaten on a daily basis, and hearing, seeing and avoiding gunshots in this community,” he said. At age 12, his younger sister took her own life as a response to the domestic violence. Cervantes was only 17 years old. “The work I’m doing now has everything to do with how I was raised,” he said.
Cervantes said conversations like this one are important because they help heal formerly incarcerated people’s wounds while also allowing others to learn from their mistakes. “You gotta share that knowledge with the people,” he said.
The feeling that the criminal justice system traps Black and Latino communities in an endless cycle of incarceration loomed large throughout the conversation. Micah Baker, 16, a student from The Peace Exchange, reflected on this after the discussion.
“The Black community and the Latino community, they end up in these correctional facilities because they don’t have the resources that White people have,” Baker remarked after the event. “They don’t have these equal opportunities, and that’s what lands them in these jails.”
During the conversation, Baker and the other teenagers also grappled with the question of prison reform versus prison abolition. Orlando Mayorga, one of the formerly incarcerated panelists, came down on the abolitionist side. “It does not take prison for a person to learn from the mistakes that they make,” he said. “I am who I am in spite of prison, not because of it.”
Mayorga, who recently graduated from college and works with people re-entering the community after incarceration, noted how difficult it is to transform neighborhoods when so much of the community is locked up.
“[Prisons] rob our neighborhood of valuable resources,” he said, adding that people who could improve neighborhoods “don’t have that opportunity because they’re spending so much time in prisons.”
Castro agreed. Once he got out of prison he said he remembered thinking, “I destroyed my community. Now, I need to rebuild it. I need to help my people because if we don’t do it, nobody will.”