Stories on the Criminal Justice System

Unheard is a collection of interviews and stories of people who have been directly or indirectly involved with the criminal justice system in New York. It is a space where those who have experienced the system can share their impressions on the complexities, contradictions and imperfections of the system. The people who have experienced the system can provide insights to creating new ways in which society can re-imagine justice.

All stories answer the question: "What has been your experience with the justice system?"

This project is part of the Oral History Project, Our Streets Our Stories (OSOS), for the Brooklyn Public Library.

My role: art director and curator, project manager, interviewer and photographer.

Story # 1

Interviewee: Five Mualim-Akk

Summary: After spending several years in prison and five years in solitary confinement, Five became a human rights advocate and is currently working towards ending solitary confinement.

Interview Location: Five's office in Harlem

Interviewers: Carmen Lopez, Brenda Bentt-Peters

Keywords: Solitary confinement, human rights advocacy, prison reform, mental illness

Five Mualim-Akk, Human Rights advocate

Five Mualim-Akk, Human Rights advocate

You’re coming through the system and they literally strip you of everything you have, like literally strip you, shave you down […] disinfect you, and you are state property. They don’t give you a name, they give you a number, and you’re sort of put through the system.
— Five Mualim-Akk

Story # 2

Interviewee: Khalil Cumberbatch

Bio: After fulfilling his prison sentence, he was confronted with a immigration detention, a far more exasperating experience for him due to the uncertainty of his detention. 

Interview Location: Central Brooklyn Public Library

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Immigration detention, education, leadership.

Khalil Cumberbatch, Director of Trainings at Just Leadership USA

Khalil Cumberbatch, Director of Trainings at Just Leadership USA

My experience with immigration, in the five months that I was being detained, with the government’s ultimate goal of deporting me, was tougher than my actual six and a half years of incarceration.
— Khalil Cumberbatch

Story # 3

Interviewee: Allahlife Gallishaw

Summary: Bedford Stuyvesant resident narrates his encounter with the police and his constant feeling of being targeted as a criminal because of his ethnicity.

Interview Location: Bedford Stuyvesant

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Youth, racial discrimination, gentrification.

Allahlife G., Bedford Stuyvesant resident

Allahlife G., Bedford Stuyvesant resident

In our neighborhood you have cops who are scared to be in this neighborhood, who have never even been in this part of the neighborhood and they’re here to protect us, but yet they’re scared to be out here. So you have a scared person with a gun, and they’re gonna shoot. Every time.
— Allahlife Gallishaw

Story # 4

Interviewee: Theresa Sweeney

Interview Location: Central Brooklyn Public Library

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Female imprisonment, power dynamics.

Theresa Sweeney 11-25-16
When I was incarcerated, I was never fearful from the other women, it was always the officers. The officers were so abusive, you know, and you had things like you had the one officer that he always would watch you taking a shower…We had this one doctor, and no matter what you went in for, he had to examine your breasts…We used to joke around about it, but there was nothing you could do.
— Theresa Sweeney

Story # 5

Interviewee: Johnny Perez

Interview Location: Johnny's office

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Incarceration, prison education. 

During my incarceration I discovered the transformative power of education, where I was given the tools to really analyze my belief system, my morals, my values, and really look at how and why I applied criminal solutions to poverty and oppression.
— Johnny Perez

Story # 6

Interviewee: Marlon Peterson, human rights and prison reform advocate

Interview Location: Central Brooklyn Public Library

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Transitional services, work in prison, education.

And I think one of the things I learned from that experience was that it wasn’t something that was supported by the administration. Though the transitional services center was a Department of Correctional…you know, a state program…they were okay with us just sort of like, reading from the manual and just reading information and guys just listening to it, and that was ineffective. It was completely ineffective.
— Marlon Peterson

Story # 7

Interviewee: Sonya Nesmith, mother of Michael

Interview Location: Central Brooklyn Public Library

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Family 

Then one morning when I was getting ready for work my other son said to me, ‘Mom the police are here for Michael.’ So I came out and they said, ‘Oh he’s just warranted for court. He didn’t go to court; he was supposed to go and he didn’t go. He’ll probably be back by twelve o’clock.’ But it ended up that he was there for two years.
— Sonya Nesmith

Story # 8

Interviewee: John Bae

Summary: John Bae shares about the role of his family in his re-entry process and how he believes that his Asian American ethnicity played a role in being able to blend into society more easily than his other peers.

Interview Location: Central Brooklyn Public Library

Interviewer: Carmen Lopez

Keywords: Family, reentry, race in prison. 

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I felt my ethnic background as an Asian American in many ways protected me during my incarceration. There weren’t that many of us in prison or jail. They all thought that we knew Kung-Fu or were part of a mob or something like that. So that was good.
— John Bae

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Project created at the Brooklyn Public Library for Outreach Services, lead by Nick Higgins and Brenda Bentt-Peters. BPL, 2016-2017.