Washtenaw County organizations lead effort to publish Michigan prisoners' firsthand stories

The Let Me Tell You initiative spotlights the experience of life and long-term prison sentences through first-person stories of people living in Michigan's 29 prisons. 
Growing up, Mark McCloud felt fortunate. He lived on the northwest side of Detroit and came from a large family of 12. His parents emphasized the value of a good education, so McCloud had no choice but to get good grades. (Math was his favorite subject.) He even traveled with his folks to nearly every state to watch major sporting events such as the World Series and the Super Bowl.

Life was good until McCloud was 15. He was walking home one day when a green car pulled up and someone inside shot him four times. 

Being a victim of gun violence transformed McCloud from a happy-go-lucky kid into one who was suddenly paralyzed and wondering if he'd ever walk again. When McCloud lost one of his best friends to gun violence shortly thereafter, his already-existing depression overtook him, and his life took a negative turn with multiple criminal arrests. Now 54, he's been serving a life sentence in prison without parole for first-degree murder since 1988.

McCloud has never had a chance to share his traumatic life story – until his recent participation in Let Me Tell You, a storytelling initiative of the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration that launched in June. Guided by Ypsilanti-based staff of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project and Carceral State Project, the initiative spotlights the experience of life and long-term prison sentences through first-person stories of people living in Michigan's 29 prisons. 

Through an email from the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich., McCloud shares that Let Me Tell You has the potential to bring positive change and healing to whole communities. 
Mark McCloud.
"This project gives incarcerated men and women an opportunity to let members in society know who we really are. Most of our stories have been told by prosecutors and police. These versions are inaccurate half-truths, or moments of our lives," he says. "The impact that Let Me Tell You has had on me is the knowledge that, for the first time since I was incarcerated 34 years ago,  someone in society can read my story for who I really am." 

McCloud first heard Let Me Tell You's call for stories from Natalie Holbrook, an Ypsilanti-based prisoner rights advocate, activist committed to dismantling prisons, and program director for AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. McCloud recalls that he had questions about how sharing his story could be helpful.

"Would people be really interested in how I grew up? What kind of grades I got in school? That I love the country and the people within it? How my neighborhood was fun to grow up in before crack cocaine came into my neighborhood?" he says.

Of the roughly 500 letters the project has received, Holbrook says McCloud's contribution particularly moved her. For her, it highlights the inhumanity of the prison system and the need for alternative systems of accountability.

"It's a slice-of-life piece reflecting on his childhood, and then he brings it to what landed him in prison for life, and then he ends it with a question of if he would ever walk again. It brings up the themes of street violence and the impacts of being a survivor of harm and violence," she says. "When we don't have systems in place, and loving kindness in place to actually get to the root of trauma and harm, we're just in a cycle. I love Mark's letter because he illuminates that."

More than their convictions

McCloud says the writing process came easily for him and that he "has a lot to say."

"I really wanted people to know that I, like so many other men and women who are incarcerated, are so much more than the crimes that we are convicted of," he says. "I feel like my life was taken away before I ever got the chance to start living it. I wanted people to know that I am a good person." 

Sharon Hunter's Let Me Tell You contribution humanizes a woman who was sentenced in 1997 to serve 60-100 years for second-degree murder. Through an email from the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) in Pittsfield Township, Hunter, 56, shares that she didn't always know how to talk or write about her life and what brought her to prison.
Sharon Hunter (second from right in back row) with her family.
"I thought I wasn't smart enough and [the law] intimidated me," she says. "But my friendship with a lady that I look up to started encouraging me. I began reaching out to organizations who believe in second chances." 

Instrumental to her journey has been AFSC's Good Neighbor Project – a co-mentorship program that pairs individuals from outside prison walls with Michigan prisoners currently serving life or long sentences. Hunter says the woman she was paired with through the project "showed me lots of love and support as we got to know each other."

"We shared life experiences, talked about my crime, and what my goals were [if] given a chance in society," she says. "I was able to share my struggles, [and] express my empathy towards the victims in my case."

Hunter's Let Me Tell You letter is a very personal look at who she was before and beyond her conviction. Like McCloud, when Hunter was younger, she traveled all across the United States for sporting events. However, she didn't travel with her parents, and she played the sporting events as a team member – representing a Bible-based orphanage.

"I had some pain in writing [the letter] due to having to remember when my life took a turn for the worse. My life was so secluded, growing up in a very strict orphanage," Hunter says. "... I was not prepared for the real world. And it was only 10 years later I found myself facing prison with a life sentence, away from my children."

Pushing for political change

McCloud and Hunter are two of 32,500 people in Michigan's state prison system, and also among over 13,000 people who are serving life or long-term sentences. Many of them may have stabilized to the point of being ready to go home, and Let Me Tell You is trying to help by humanizing them. A big challenge, however, is working against the backdrop of what Holbrook describes as Michigan's "very repressive sentencing scheme" and some "resistant, old-school prosecutors." 

To illustrate the landscape, she points out that 70% of people in the Michigan prison system are serving sentences for what are considered assaultive offenses. Assaultive offenses cover a broad range, including something as simple as a police officer tripping while pursuing someone. Holbrook also notes that there are 1,550 women currently serving time at WHV, giving Michigan the fourth largest population of women in prison in the U.S. Furthermore, Holbrook shares that it's important to note that 90% of women who end up in the system have experienced sexual violence.
Natalie Holbrook.
"Most of the people I have met in prison have experienced gruesome, insane violence in their lives. Prison and punishment don't leave room for healing, and they don't leave room for accountability for individuals or the community," Holbrook says. "And we're all accountable for the harms in our communities. For example, if young people are having challenges with access to schooling due to their race or economic status, and [they] end up on the streets and then kill someone, I think we're all responsible for that too." 

Holbrook hopes Let Me Tell You will change people's hearts, spur community conversations around ending mass incarceration, and encourage people to push for political change.

"Prison is not posh. They feed people on $2 a day for all three meals and they force people to live in inhumane conditions," she says. "It's time to change the narrative of what has been largely lock-them-up-and-disappear-them work. We need to get to the roots of what people are actually experiencing so that we can all live in more thriving communities." 

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe except Mark McCloud photo courtesy of Mark McCloud.