The American criminal justice system consists of 2.2 million people behind bars, plus tens of millions of family members, corrections and police officers, parolees, victims of crime, judges, prosecutors and defenders.
WBEZ is partnering with the Marshall Project to tell some of their stories. It’s part of The Marshall Project’s series “We Are Witnesses” exploring the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness through portraits of Chicagoans who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
Nneka Jones Tapia told her story to The Marshall Project as part of their series “We Are Witnesses.” Portions of the interview are transcribed below. Her comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.
My first experiences in a correctional institution date back more than 30 years. When I was 8 years old, my father was incarcerated for possession of marijuana and that was the first time that I was introduced to the justlessness of our criminal justice system. I watched more than a dozen sheriff officers armed with rifles take my father away for a nonviolent offense where he would end up spending more than two years in prison.
During and after my father's incarceration, I really saw what life in jail and prison could do to someone — how it could demoralize them, but more so remove all sense of hope. And I saw how the support of people around you could help mitigate that. And that's when I knew I wanted to go into working in a correctional institution, and more so healing in a correctional institution.
When I started working at Cook County Jail, the overwhelming majority of people were incarcerated on nonviolent offenses. And when you walk into those doors, and you see hundreds of young black men chained together, it does something to you; it did something to me as a black woman. But it compelled me to do all that I could to support those young men and women that I saw coming into those doors.
As a psychologist in the jail, I really saw my role as a healer, and what we saw were young men and women who had been exposed to a trauma and had not had adequate supports. And so we ensured access to treatment from the moment they entered until the moment they left. And when I was appointed the warden, I knew that I was the face of a criminal justice system that I knew didn't work well for people who looked like me. And I was fortunate to have a sheriff and a team of people that helped me to continue to transform that jail in a healing capacity.
You can see more of the “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” videos at https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses. This story was produced for broadcast by WBEZ's Alyssa Edes. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.