Quayshaun Bailey with Emma Cruz
The Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) provides learning opportunities for a cohort of students currently incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security men's prison located in Illinois. Northwestern University students and faculty administer a full liberal arts curriculum, empowering NPEP members while gaining experience with the criminal justice system in order to confront its many flawed practices.
Another New Calligraphy is proud to feature this conversation with Quayshaun Bailey, a current NPEP student, and Emma Cruz, a program intern who has supported his coursework. Though their perspectives are worlds apart, both highlight the transformative value of literacy and some of the social factors preventing its universal attainment.
Examples of Quayshaun's writing appear after this dialogue.
Quayshaun: I was introduced to creative writing by my mother as a kid. She is a fan of poetry and as soon as I learned to read and write she taught me to pen my own pieces. My mom was adamant about me getting a good education back then and very hands-on. As a result of her dedication I quickly excelled in all my subjects. She instilled in me a burning desire to learn, grow, and create. That fire still fuels me today.
I’d be lying if I said my academic accomplishments were consistent, though. Life got hard on me as I got older. I was taken away from my mother by DCFS, started getting into fights at school, and lost three cousins to gun violence by the time I was eleven. After being faced with all that, school became less and less of a priority for me. I lost faith in its benefit, everything except for poetry.
I started using my skills to write rap songs. Rap is just poetry with a beat, and it became my new outlet to vent the pain of my struggles. Even after I dropped out of high school, that stuck with me. Writing and recording music became therapeutic. I had so much stress and pain bottled up inside and rap gave me a way to let it out. However, once I was incarcerated, I had that taken from me. I couldn’t record anymore. Nevertheless, after all I had been through in the streets, the court system, and while being locked in a cell the majority of the day, I had a lot to say. It just didn’t make sense to continue writing music when I wouldn’t be able to record it for over a decade. So, I returned to my old craft.
Emma: In my English class sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, we were assigned two research papers and for both assignments, I wrote about mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Later in the semester my English professor reached out to me with information on NPEP because she thought I might be interested, based on the papers I had submitted to her. Because of her, I was able to apply as an intern for this amazing program. I am majoring in criminology, law and justice, and hope to dedicate my career to fighting against mass incarceration, racial injustice, and related issues. Therefore, working for NPEP will help me to build my experience working in this field, and aligns well with my values of equality and justice.
I personally love writing; essays, children's books, anything really. I have written various books for my sister, never published, but just something between her and I. Because my sister is Black, my dad is Latino, and I identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, social injustice is a common thing we talk about in my family, and something that is very important to me, which has definitely fueled my interest in fighting injustice as part of a career in the criminal justice system. Since I started as an intern at NPEP, my view on learning and literature has most definitely changed. In school many of us are taught that one must learn in a traditional way (graduate from high school, go to college, then get a job), and write in “proper American English” in order to be considered successful by society. This is demonstrated through standardized tests, textbooks, and other areas as well. I feel that this is not accurate at all, and solely a way that our government continues to perpetuate capitalism and white supremacy.
All writing is valuable, no matter who it is written by, their “level of education,” or the way they use and express language. Working with Quayshaun and other students at NPEP made me realize that writing is just another form of art and personal expression that can be shown in extremely diverse ways in which are all valuable, and that there is no one way to learn; learning can take place anywhere and at any time in one's life, and again is valuable in all ways.
Quayshaun: It was also after I was incarcerated that I regained my interest in education. I was unhappy with who I had become and where it led me. I had been selling drugs, stealing, and all kinds of other things I had no business doing. It was really just me lashing out in pain from my painful circumstances and adapting to a violent environment. However, regardless of the reasoning behind it I hurt people and broke laws and I got twenty years for it.
It was then that I committed myself to change. I would start with myself and then I would help others do the same. I got my GED after only a little over a year in prison. I got my associates in liberal studies and a horticulture certificate from Lakeland Community College. Now, I’m in a Bachelor’s program with NPEP.
Most importantly I started writing again. Poetry, essays, books; not just about myself and my struggles but about the common struggle faced by minorities and marginalized people. I want to play my part in bringing awareness to these issues and to assist in finding solutions. Literature is the perfect platform for me to fulfill my mission.
Emma: As an intern for the Northwestern Prison Education program, my tasks include typing up the students’ essays and written work, researching relevant topics such as obtaining an ID after release or getting a job, assisting the students in any specific research they are in need of such as how to start a nonprofit or write a clemency letter, writing character letters for the students’ clemencies, and assisting the other staff and volunteers at NPEP with various tasks. Outside of this I have taken on personal tasks such as organizing a book drive, a school supply drive, working with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, and of course, helping Quayshaun publish his poetry.
Personally, one of my biggest challenges with working at NPEP is the restrictions placed on us by the correctional facility we work with. We must only communicate with the students about academics, and nothing more. Because I am someone who loves to help others and connect with people emotionally and on deeper levels, it is difficult for me to remain academically focused while hearing about everything the students go through outside of their classes, and not being able to really talk to them about this much. Along with this I support prison abolition, so I believe in the extreme importance of these programs but also wish that there was no need for them in the first place, and that education was something automatically given equally to everyone, everywhere. A second challenge for me in the program is that issues of mass incarceration and inequality within the criminal justice system predominantly impact Black men and women, yet, there are few Black individuals that work for the program. The other interns and I feel that if the program were Black led, it could have an even greater impact on the students, as the students are predominantly Black as well.
However, one of the biggest rewards of working for NPEP is the connections I have made with the students. I have really loved hearing their stories, getting to know them, reading all of their amazing essays, and most of all, helping them in any way I can. Unfortunately, because I started with NPEP after Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, I was never able to experience the internship in person. Sadly, I feel that the connections I have made with the students are less strong than they would have been if I were able to work with them in person. However, I am certain that I will never forget the students I worked with, their willingness to let me into their lives and share their personal stories with me, and the program in general.
Quayshaun: NPEP has been diligent in making sure I continue to grow as a writer, scholar, and overall human being. Since being in the program I’ve learned to write tv pilots, journalistic pieces, and I'm currently taking a course on expository writing. Being exposed to these different genres are helping me imagine all the different ways I can convey a story. However, whatever I write will be done with the same intent: to enlighten, uplift, and inspire.
NPEP has also introduced me to a large group of people with similar thinking and similar interests. I’m not the same person that I was before I was incarcerated; I have a different outlook on life, different goals and dreams. If I truly want to bring them to life, I must surround myself with people who have corresponding aspirations. In the past, I was in the streets and the people I hung with were as well; we all had street mentalities. Now that I’ve outgrown that I’ve been sharing what I learned with them and helping them grow, too. All that I do is done with my old friends and community in mind, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without the NPEP family and this experience. That includes being featured in this journal, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I never met Emma.
There are downsides to it all, however. Due to the pandemic, Stateville has been on lockdown for over six months. I transferred here from a medium security prison to participate in the program, but lately we’ve been reduced to correspondence courses and I’m often confined to my cell for 24 hours a day. I’ve had to deal with cell mates whose lifestyles conflict with mine in one way or another. I won’t go into any specifics but know that staying focused in such situations is an accomplishment in itself. I’m proud to say that I haven’t fallen victim to the negativity around me, and I'm elevating more by the day.
Emma: I feel that all of the NPEP students I work with are extremely talented, unique, passionate, and exceptional individuals. However, when I was asked to edit Quayshaun’s poetry, his words stuck with me. The way he expresses himself through his poetry is extremely inspirational. His pieces are very personal, moving, and insightful. Before reading his poetry, I discovered from another student that Quayshaun had transferred from a medium security prison to Stateville, a maximum-security prison, just so that he could be eligible for NPEP. This also sets him apart from the other students; he is so dedicated to his education, that he transferred to a maximum-security prison to have the opportunity to learn. I don’t know a lot of people that would do that and honestly, I’m not even sure I would. Finally, I read another one of his essays called, “Mission Macronutrients,” and I was so amazed by the way he told a captivating story all while completing a science research paper. The tactics he used to tell the story created a sensation of mystery; I had no idea what was going on in the story until the very end, yet I couldn’t stop reading! He is truly a brilliant writer, and I hope that I will be able to write as well as him one day.
Quayshaun: One thing I can say is the majority of people I've encountered in Statesville actually want to be in the NPEP, or some program, but there are limited opportunities. Although I would much prefer that the prison system be dismantled, in the meantime the government needs to invest in more educational and restorative opportunities. I’ve been fortunate to have done all that I have, but I’m around people who have been on the waiting list for GED classes for years because of the limited space. Things would be a lot different if prisoners (not just in Stateville) were given the tools and resources they need to actually grow, rather than just being thrown in a cell.
When I first heard about NPEP my initial thought was, “I’m getting in that program.” There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t get in. I filled out the application and wrote the essay knowing this program was made for me. Yet people who are just as eager to learn are being denied a basic education all the time. Situations like this are the reason why I write. This is the perfect example of why literature is so important to me. My face can be hidden behind these walls and my voice silenced, but my pen has the power to reach millions and my thoughts can’t be confined.
Emma: Working for the Northwestern Prison Education Program has prepared me for my future in various ways. I was able to connect with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and am now applying for an internship with their education program, which goes well with what I would like to eventually do as a career. It also gave me research experience, along with experience working with incarcerated individuals, which will be helpful going into a career in the criminal justice and social justice fields. Finally, it gave me a new perspective on education and literature. Because I am minoring in Spanish, after graduation I hope to travel to a Spanish-speaking country and become fluent, and then return to the U.S. and work in either Los Angeles or Chicago to help incarcerated youth, and homeless and LGBTQ+ youth. This could mean teaching at a juvenile detention center, starting a non-profit organization or homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth, or possibly becoming a counselor or social worker.
In terms of reform and community work, I feel that the Black Lives Matter movement has been a main priority for me, as it should be for everyone. I plan to start volunteering for Defund CPD (a Black abolitionist initiative pushing to defund the Chicago Police Department) and as a white-passing person, I continue to make anti-racism and deconstructing white supremacy a priority and a part of my daily life. Along with this however, I am also the Vice President of Pride, an LGBTQ student group at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), so supporting all LGBTQ people at UIC, and in the broader Chicago community is also a priority for me.
Quayshaun: Recently I wrote the most important project in my life thus far: my executive clemency. The program provided me with a do-it-yourself packet that guided me through the steps. Written on the front page were the words, "This is when you need to be a good writer.” I don’t know who made the note, but I took heed. I poured my heart out on those pages, and for good reason. I’ve been locked up for ten years because of some poor decisions I made when I was 18 years old. Yes, I take accountability for them. I’ve learned and grown from them. However, knowing who I am today I don’t think I should have to continue to suffer for them. We’ve all done bad things in our lives but that doesn’t make us bad people, and I am not a bad person.
Emma: One misconception I would like to address, if this is not clear already, is that incarcerated individuals are no less capable than those that are not incarcerated, in any way or form. Just because one is incarcerated, it does not speak on their character, intelligence, passions, history, or future. Our nation’s criminal justice system does not incarcerate the guilty, it incarcerates the vulnerable. It is a system that focuses more on the individual actions of those given little to no opportunities, instead of systems and groups in our society that cause large social harm, such as the criminal justice system itself.
Quayshaun: I’m an aspiring author, a poet, a future entrepreneur and activist, and a Northwestern alumnus. I will do many great things in the years to come both through and outside of literature and my colleagues at NPEP are personally committed to making sure I do. We’re a team and as the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work.
Crickets outside my window
I wonder if you hear them too
Is the melody they play for me
The same tune they play for you
A song made just for us
When no one else thinks to listen
The verses of the crickets' chirp
Reminds me it’s you I’m missing
Making me feel closer to you
Knowing you also hear our song
Announcing another day passed
One less day I’ll be gone
I picture you sitting on your porch
Being serenaded by their sound
Just you, them, and the thought of me
With no one else around
My little friends the crickets
That I send out to you each day
On a mission to go and find you
To bring a message to relay
In a language only we understand
Like our own little Morse code
When you decipher all the I love yous
As the conversation unfolds
And every time I hear their song again
I know your message was returned
Back and forth passing I miss yous
To and fro, taking turns.
At 16 I was wild’n.
At 17 focused on money.
At 18 I got arrested.
At 19 they gave me twenty.
It wasn’t funny,
But somehow I couldn’t do nothing but laugh
As I paced back and forth,
In my cell doing the math.
And they wonder why I’m so wild
When I be runnin’ the block.
Cuz every day I have flashes
Of my homies stuffed in a box.
With dirt on they casket
So I’m gon’ get some dirt on this glock.
Cuz I’ll rather be bustin’ shots
Than to have them cover my plot.
You thuggin’ or not? Makes the difference
Between you eat and you starve.
No prayin’ to God—just say Fuck It!
Hit the streets and go hard.
I live for today, while everybody
Say I should dream for tomorrow.
But honestly, most my guyz
Don’t even plan on seein’ tomorrow.
Cuz all these shots make a day
Feel like a year and some change.
That’s why we grow up so fast,
Cuz we be constantly hearin’ the bangz.
But here we remain, too lost
To get out these streets and to change.
Thinkin’ if we go out with a bang
Then we wasn’t living in vain.
One of Those Days
Forced smiles hide the truth, head nods
and short phrases—the gist of my
Slothfulness possessing me, the close
cousin of sorrow, somehow relinquishing my
Mind in a million places, none of them
where it should, suffering from runaway
I’m feeling like an outlaw inside of my
own skin, wandering for peace sought.
Longing for personal isolation, left alone to
contemplate, not bothered by any others.
But there’s no escape, it’s like wherever
I go by someone else I’m being smothered.
Mental compass in disarray, in which
way I’m going…one of those ways.
Stressed for whatever reason, or for no
reason at all—I guess it’s just one of
Why a Caged Lion Paces
I was born looking at the world through a
Some say heaven is on earth, but all I ever
Seen was hell.
Brillo pads, and crack pipes, and coc up
On the scale.
It wasn’t no justice, just us getting thrown
Up in a cell.
Confused as a child questioning my mom ‘bout
Why she made me.
Knowing my father wouldn’t want me and
That this world would only hate me.
Verbally stating—“it’s cool, I’ll never let it
I can’t show you I’m tripping, but in my head
I’m going crazy.
I’m society’s bastard, wild and rebellious so
Thrown in a box and forgotten like old letters
My people write me.
On the verge of exploding from all the pain
Buried inside me.
And I don’t just speak for myself, I speak
For everybody like me.
The oppressed and the broke with the
Screwed up looks on our faces.
America’s Finest—the little monsters
That they made us.
We’ve got so much going wrong and it
Seems nobody to save us.
Thus, that’s the answer to the question—
Why A Caged Lion Paces
I’ve never felt the way that I feel before.
Like feeling the wind in my face for the first
The sun shining on my skin in the dawn of
Experiencing my first moon as I stare in
awe of the night.
Every breath seems foreign, every moment
It’s a battle of concentration in every step I
My voice has a renewed innocence, a
No—just a clean slate, a fresh mold, a
life force untamed.
A reset—not a defect and no I haven’t
been beat yet.
This is my mind allowing me to rebuild myself
how I see best.
Just preparing me to propel myself to heights
that I haven’t reached yet.
Showing the world not even a caged lion is
some weak pet.
Returning to Society
Time ticking down until the big bang
when I’ll be born forth.
From the pits of this abyss that I’ve
been thrown in on this cold course of life.
As the measure of the motion adds up
and winds down simultaneously
I became the seven in the center, the
nucleus in the middle, and everything
gravitates to me.
Not to say that it was all about me, but
as I started to spin things around me
started to bend.
I rotated and warped where space was
located and everything revolved around me.
Then I allowed social admittance at
different states of resistance
Keeping those hot like me close and those
that were just-ice at a distance.
I consistently refine myself and remain
sufficient on my own.
Ever emitting bursts of energy so the
peak of my power is shown.
Never allowing negative make-up to
corrupt my many layers, nor the elements
that I’m made of as they attack my
There aren’t enough forces that exist
to ever knock me off my throne.