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Mass Incarceration in the Cornfields: Shattered Families and Racial Profiling in Small-Town America

In the shadow of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Black families are ripped apart by mass incarceration.

In the shadow of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Black families are ripped apart by mass incarceration. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

This story is the second in a new Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series will dive deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.

Annette Taylor first lost her father to the prison system at age four. He was gone for four years, then came home for a few months, only to return to the Department of Corrections for another 16 years. “My dad was my everything,” Taylor told Truthout. Once her father was gone, Taylor remembers that her mother “just worked, worked, worked. She really wasn’t around.” Her mother worked two, sometimes three jobs — doing laundry in hotels and laboring in factories in Champaign County, Illinois, where their family lived. When still a preteen, Taylor had to take on the role of mothering her younger siblings — “get the dinner out that my mom made, make sure my little sister was doing her homework.” By the time she was fourteen, Taylor was pregnant. “I didn’t even tell my dad,” she recalls. She was terrified he would be disappointed. He only learned about the child a year later.

Being a parent ultimately meant a hiatus from school for Taylor until she was seventeen. By that time both her sister and brother were in trouble, she said. This trouble compounded when her sister gave birth to a child while incarcerated. Taylor ended up with the responsibility of taking care of her sister’s child as well as her own.

Looking back on those days, Taylor believes the absence of her father made a huge difference. If he had been around, she observed, “the household would have been more structured … I don’t think my brother and sister would have gotten into trouble.”

Taylor’s story is much like that of Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, who was also born and raised in Champaign County, Illinois. The night her mother was arrested, the Department of Child and Family Services immediately grabbed Harvey-Robinson, then a third-grader, and handed her and her four siblings over to foster care. Since her father was already incarcerated as well, there was seemingly no recourse. Fortunately for her, the foster home turned out to be her grandmother’s house. Her other brother and two sisters ended up with an uncle and another grandmother.

Harvey-Robinson said that for her, the arrest caused a disconnect with her parents and with her siblings. She had to “schedule visitation” and get permission from family services to visit her sisters and brothers. If she wanted to go to a friend’s house, family services would have to do criminal background checks on the friend’s parents before she could visit. Even when her parents were released from prison, Harvey-Robinson and her siblings remained in foster care.

The arrest “just messed up relationships,” she told Truthout, meaning her parents “weren’t there for big accomplishments like me making honor roll, doing my first play and making cheerleading squad. I had to share all those experiences over the phone with like two minutes to even talk,” she said, and let them know “I was doing all these great things while they were away.” She would remain in a foster home until her “release” at age 18.

The stories of Taylor and Harvey-Robinson parallel those of the more than 2.7 million children under 18 who currently have parents who are incarcerated. Yet the dominant narratives tend to portray the situations as if they only happen in big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or DC. There is another side to this story: that of small towns and counties, whether they be in the deserts of Colorado, the mining areas of West Virginia or the cornfields of Champaign County, Illinois, where Taylor and Harvey-Robinson grew up. Mass incarceration rips apart families and destroys lives nearly everywhere — and each place has its own particular history, an urgent story needing to be told.

Champaign County

Champaign County is home to 202,000 people, with 60 percent of the population in the two major cities of Champaign and Urbana. Located on what was once the Illinois Central Railroad, the town was also a stop on the Great Migration of African Americans who fled the South and headed to Chicago in the early and mid-20th century.

Champaign County markets its identity as home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois. Enrollment for 2017 was just over 44,000. Known for world-class computer science and engineering schools, the University of Illinois has produced more than 20 Nobel laureates. The first graphical web browser was devised here and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications houses Blue Waters, a mega machine that measures its capacity in petabytes (that is, in millions of gigabytes).

A much less well-known and far less-publicized feature of this county is the racial profile of those incarcerated in the local jail. In a county where 13 percent of the residents are Black, at last count the jail population was 71 percent Black, one of the highest racial disparities in the country. Huffington Post journalist Jeff Kelly-Lowenstein reported in 2014 that Champaign had even greater racial disparities in arrests than a well-known town just three hours away — Ferguson, Missouri.

Ultimately, Champaign is a county of parallel universes. A world-class university battles for Nobel prizes and research grants, while the local Black population struggles with poverty and racial profiling; the majority-white students at the college that the Princeton Review ranked as the nation’s number-one party school in 2015 freely indulge in their drugs of choice while the county’s 26,000 Black people fight a losing battle against the ground troops of a war on drugs. The local SWAT team, which comprises both city and university police, routinely conducts early morning raids, often utilizing the Mine Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP) vehicle recently acquired by the sheriff.

These parallel universes are neither disconnected from each other nor detached from the racial history of the region and the university itself. While the land-grant school’s mission promises to “transform lives and serve society,” that goal seems to end about two blocks past University Avenue, the effective border with the largely Black “North End.” When asked about the Black community’s attitude toward the University of Illinois, veteran local activist Martel Miller told Truthout, “We’re not invited…. It’s there, but it’s not there for us. It’s in reach for us, it’s in sight for us, but it’s not there for us … no access.”

A History of Segregation

University of Illinois urban planning lecturer Ken Salo refers to contemporary Champaign and Urbana as “segregated cities.” The two cities — as well as the university, in many ways — remain a product of white supremacy. According to historian Jim Loewen, at least five cities in and around Champaign County have a history of segregation, with several being “sundown towns” — places where Black people could not remain inside the city limits after the sun went down. Local public institutions also have a long history of complicity with segregation. In 1954, when the US Supreme Court effectively ended legal school segregation with Brown v. Board of Education, Champaign still had all-Black and all-white schools, despite Illinois laws prohibiting school segregation. In 1961, the League of Women Voters found that 98 percent of Champaign-Urbana landlords refused to rent to Black people. By the mid-60s, restaurants, bars and barber shops remained segregated.

Even the integration of the University of Illinois student body was hardly a painless process. In fall of 1968, after local protests following the assassination of Dr. King, the university launched Project 500, an attempt to get 500 Black students into the freshman class. While the university succeeded in recruiting 565 Black and Latinx students, they hadn’t made proper arrangements for their arrival. Some students were left stranded at the Chicago airport (three hours away); others were without financial aid or housing. As a result, the 565 staged a sit-in inside the campus union building during which 240 of them were arrested. Instead of settling into the comfortable student life, many of these students spent the bulk of the year resolving their court cases.

The sit-in at the University of Illinois was a reflection of the intensity of social movements of the time, especially Black Power. When the militancy of the ’60s faded away, pressure to recruit students of color dissipated, and the student population drifted back toward its pre-1968 demographics. But while campus politics were calming, things were heating up on the streets of Champaign-Urbana. The war on drugs had come to town.

“Fishing With a Brick”: The Rise of Mass Incarceration in the ’80s and ’90s

Champaign native Donte Lotts lost his father to the prison system for 32 years when he was just four years old. He grew up in the 1980s, when mass incarceration and the war on drugs were kicking into high gear. “Single parent families were the norm in those days,” Lotts told Truthout. “Out of the 10 men in my family, eight were incarcerated.”

Lotts said the closest thing he had to a family photo was a picture of him visiting his father and uncle in Menard prison, a four-hour drive from home. He recalls that the only time the whole family got together was the annual picnic inside Menard. “We were allowed to bring in food,” he said. “My aunt used to bake cakes…. They even had relay races.”

But over the years the regimes in prison tightened. Opportunities to engage in activities together, like the picnic, vanished as security began to trump keeping families connected. Communication was limited to letters and infrequent, over-priced phone calls.

Lotts told Truthout how his North End neighborhood changed under the weight of mass incarceration: “Incarceration stretched the resources of families. With breadwinners gone, some people even became homeless.” Lotts turned to the neighborhood Boys & Girls Club for support. There he said he found some male role models that were missing from his family life.

In local schools, the disciplinary regimen began to change during the 1980s as well. Instead of relying on the principal and families, schools began referring cases to the juvenile justice system. As early as 1984, school reports for disorderly conduct or disobedience were filled out in triplicate, with one copy going to the juvenile court. These were the early days of the school-to-prison pipeline.

By the time Deloris Henry became a school administrator in Champaign’s Unit 4 District in the late 1990s, she told Truthout that a “law-and-order attitude” pervaded the district, with Black children being disproportionately singled out for suspensions and expulsion. According to Henry, who is African American, even young children were not exempt. If a third-grader got into a schoolyard fight, a note about the incident might be sent to local police, particularly if the child was Black. The police department was starting “rap sheets” for children before they turned 10. This advent of a local brand of zero-tolerance discipline did nothing to improve education, especially for Black students. By the late 1990s, Black parents were so distraught at the poor performance rates of their children that they filed a successful civil suit with the federal government. The lawsuit pointed to the low rate of Black students in honors and advanced placement classes, as well as their over-representation in special education and remedial programs. The importance of such statistics was not lost on Henry. As she reminded Truthout, “there is a strong correlation between core academic performance and incarceration.” The result of parents’ petitioning was a consent decree that put Champaign Unit 4 Schools under the federal eye from 2002-2009. This decree yielded a plan of action that helped reduce achievement gaps between white students and students of color. Evaluators of the decree also noted that white enrollments dropped during this period, largely due to white families relocating to neighboring towns with fewer people of color — the “white flight” syndrome.

At the same time as the consent decree papers were moving through the courts, in the streets of the North End, the war on drugs and mass incarceration was moving into high gear. According to Miller, SWAT teams emerged during this period, as well as undercover police who drove around in “old Chevies with primer on them” trying to blend in. The war on drugs, he said, was like “fishing with a brick … you might hit something but mostly you are stirring up the water.”

The national fear campaign focusing on the supposed impending rise of “youth superpredators” did, however, resonate with local authorities. In 1996 they built a 40-bed juvenile detention center, a facility that has remained less than half full for most of its life. In 1998 the county passed a public safety sales tax dedicating revenue to law-enforcement construction. This tax helped support the building of a second county jail. By 2002, county jail capacity had increased from 45 in 1980 to 313, and it was overflowing. Mass incarceration had taken root in this sleepy Midwestern college town.

Moreover, a newly militarized police force was stepping up patrols on the North End. Mass incarceration was taking root in Champaign County.

Pushing Back Against Mass Incarceration and Heavy Policing

Just after the launching of the consent decree, residents stepped up efforts to push back against police violence targeting the county’s Black population. In 2003, Martel Miller, along with his cousin Patrick Thompson formed an organization called Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults (VEYA). The organization focused on recording police activity in the Black community. When they compiled a 40-minute film that chronicled a number of incidents of police abuse, the pair was arrested and charged with felony eavesdropping. Eventually the eavesdropping cases were dropped, but Thompson got additional charges, including home invasion and criminal sexual abuse, stemming from a domestic incident in the community. Thompson eventually won an acquittal, but his case sparked the formation of a local social movement dedicated to racial justice, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ). For the next decade, the multiracial CUCPJ, under the leadership of local African-American activists Aaron and Carol Ammons, spearheaded local resistance to mass incarceration and police abuse.

The peak of CUCPJ’s mobilization came in reaction to the police killing of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington in 2009. Reports from the family say that Carrington and a friend were trying to get into his aunt’s house through a window. A neighbor spotted him, mistook him for a burglar, and called the Champaign police. According to police reports, the two police officers who arrived suspected the youth might be armed, so one of the officers, Daniel Norbits, drew his gun. Police alleged that a scuffle ensued and Norbits discharged his gun “accidentally,” fatally wounding Carrington. Community spokespersons and CUCPJ leaders questioned this version of events and pushed for charges to be filed against the officers. Despite repeated pleas and mobilizations of youth and family of Carrington, no charges were filed. Norbits was taken off patrol duty but received regular pay for the next four years, despite being away from Champaign much of the time. He eventually qualified for disability as a result of the incident. The city ultimately reached a settlement with the Carrington family in 2010, paying $470,000 without any admission of guilt.

While the legal case was finished, the trauma to the community caused by Carrington’s death did not go away. In 2013, rapper J. Tune, a friend of Carrington’s, composed a spoken-word piece, “One More Day,” in his memory. It has drawn nearly 11,000 views. When asked by Truthout for a comment on his memories of Kiwane, J. Tune simply replied: “Pain that will never fully heal.” The local Independent Media Center, the focal point of social justice organizing in the community, still bears a banner that reads: Remember Kiwane: No Stolen Lives.

CUCPJ also sparked the birth of Build Programs Not Jails, which has been fighting efforts by the county to build new jail cells since 2012. The organization has repeatedly attacked the racial disparity in the jail population. In 2015, along with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, the members of Build Programs Not Jails pressured the county to establish a Racial Justice Task Force to investigate the causes of the jail population’s disparity and recommend policy changes. The county eventually acquiesced, and the task force is still carrying out its work. Another CUCPJ spinoff is Community Courtwatch, a group of social justice activists who monitor the courts and provide support to individuals facing criminal charges.

Due to pressure from local social justice groups, as well as policy reforms, the county jail population has fallen by nearly 40 percent in the last decade. However, racial disparity in the population has not declined. Moreover, 2015-2016 saw a rash of deaths in the jail. Within a span of seven months, three Black people — Toya Frazier, Paul Clifton and Veronica Horstead — died shortly after being locked up. All three had grown up in Champaign-Urbana. Family members and friends flocked to the county board after their deaths to question why the authorities continued to incarcerate their loved ones, known to have substance abuse challenges, instead of building a treatment center in the community.

A million-dollar lawsuit has been filed by the family of Toya Frazier for wrongful death. The suit alleges that jail and medical staff ignored her pleas for help while she was withdrawing from heroin, causing her death.

In the meantime, the university next door persists in operating as if it’s located in a separate universe. The University of Illinois continues to “focus on responding to the global market for international students rather than to the challenges confronting the local community,” according to Ken Salo. In 2013 the university had 356 Black freshmen, nearly 40 percent less than it did in the Project 500 days. A 2015 study done by Miller and local resident Terry Townsend revealed that from 2012-2014, 60 percent of the more than 600 trespassing arrests on campus were of Black people.

Nonetheless, the university’s emphasis on international students has yielded dividends for its balance sheets. The University of Illinois now ranks fifth in the nation for international enrollment, with just over 7,000 students, the majority from China. While the Black unemployment rate in Champaign county remains above 17 percent, along the border of the North End, construction companies are busy repopulating University Avenue with luxury apartments aimed at the international student market. In Salo’s words, this puts the university at the “leading edge of gentrification.” For Martel Miller, these buildings are just further proof that the University of Illinois is “in the community but not of the community.”

Families Resist

For their part, Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, Annette Taylor and Donte Lotts continue the struggle to keep Black families together and halt the scourge of incarceration. Harvey-Robinson was a major player in the national campaign for prison phone justice in 2016. She traveled to Washington, DC, to tell the story of how over-priced phone calls restricted her communication lifeline to her incarcerated parents throughout her youth. She provided similar testimony for the Illinois State Legislature.

Annette Taylor is the leader of a local residents group, Ripple Effect. Ripple, which stands for Reaching Inside Prisons with Purpose and Love, brings together families of the incarcerated, especially children, for sessions during which they share experiences and write letters to their loved ones inside. Under a slogan of “reconnecting our community one letter at a time,” Taylor estimates the group sends out about 100 letters each month.

Lotts has spent more than two decades as a social worker in the Black community, focusing his work on young men like himself who are growing up in the absence of an incarcerated father. Lotts spent several years in an alternative school but grew disillusioned by its zero tolerance policies, which he said often made the place “like a prison.” Today he is the director of a new program, CU Fresh Start, which seeks to support and re-direct young men with a history of criminal justice involvement. The program also aims to reduce the rash of gun violence that has plagued the North End in the last year.

Martel Miller continues his work of being what he calls a “community ambassador.” Carol and Aaron Ammons have moved into electoral politics, where they remain focused on issues of racial and social justice. Just last month, Aaron Ammons led a push to resist efforts by the Urbana City Council, of which he is now a member, to hire more police in response to the recent gun violence. Ammons was advocating more expenditure on services to keep youth out of jail. (Unfortunately, the council moved forward with its plans to increase the number of police.) He and Lotts are also leaders of the North End Breakfast Club, a social-justice-oriented group of Black men who focus on challenging police misconduct and providing opportunities for youth in the community.

Meanwhile, Carol Ammons has entered Illinois’ state legislature. In her first year, State Representative Ammons sponsored and led the campaign to pass the Illinois bill on prison phone justice, one of the most progressive in the nation. The measure cut the cost of phone calls by more than half and eliminated the $12 million in kickbacks the Department of Corrections was receiving each year from phone charges.

Even with the lack of concern from the university, the pushback against police abuse and mass incarceration continues. And despite five years of trying, county authorities have still not been able to procure a single cent toward building new jail cells. It’s not a revolution, but in some historical moments resistance is at the leading edge of the struggle.

Note: The author would like to thank Brian Dolinar for advice on this article.

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