Managing Editor of Prison Legal News

I am honored and beyond thrilled to announce that I have accepted a position as managing editor of Prison Legal News, the longest-running newspaper written by and for people incarcerated.

PLN was started in 1990 by Paul Wright while he was incarcerated in Washington state. I first met Paul in 2007 when he visited a Books to Prisoners conference at the Independent Media Center in Urbana. I later worked with him on the prison phone justice campaign. PLN has reprinted several of my articles over the years. Several of my friends in prison and formerly incarcerated friends regard PLN as the most respected publication on mass incarceration.

It was my pen pal in Pontiac, Greg Koger, who first told me about PLN. Since his passing over a year ago, Greg has been on my mind a lot, and I would like to think he would be proud of me in my new role.

I am sad to have to leave my job at Parole Illinois where I worked with many wonderful people―Shari Stone-Mediatore, Pablo Mendoza, Melly Rios, Lauren Metlock, Katrina Burlet, Oscar “Smiley” Parham, and many others. You can watch a three-minute video of a recent panel we held with students at Knox College.

I have a two-part series on COVID in Illinois prisons that was published in Truthout. “New Surge of COVID is Spreading ‘Like Wildfire’ in Illinois Prisons,” covers the frightening spike in cases I heard about in Stateville and Danville prisons. “Prioritizing Incarcerated People for Vaccine Quickly Reduced COVID in IL Prisons,” reports on the vaccine distribution that quickly halted spread of the virus. Together, they capture the voices of people living through the pandemic while in prison, and their loved ones on the outside who support them.

Lastly, I enjoyed being with my friend and elder Barbara Kessel, longtime social justice warrior, for her 82nd birthday. I took this photo of us together at her birthday party. Barbara and her friends had gotten the vaccine, it was the first time I was at a social event. While there, I got the call for an appointment to get my own vaccine shot. I went the following Saturday to get a Johnson&Johnson shot at the Douglass Center with 1,000 other people that day. It was in community that I got the OK for being back in community.  

Prison Solidarity in a Pandemic

Parole Illinois in a Zoom meeting with IL State Rep. Sonya Harper (center).

The last year has put me at the center of a whirlwind―working with people incarcerated as they are caged with COVID-19 in their midst. I’ve heard harrowing stories from those inside seeing COVID spread rapidly, and those on the outside fearful for their loved ones who must face the deadly virus with little to no medical intervention.  

I published my most recent article in The Progressive Magazine about COVID responses at jails in three communities―Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. It features the story of Wayne Colson, a friend and a father who was filled with worry as his son sat in the Champaign County jail during the early outbreak of COVID.  

I started working for Parole Illinois in early 2020, just weeks before COVID hit. In April, we held a virtual press conference with testimonies about the spread of COVID inside Illinois prisons that was covered by the Chicago Sun-Times. Parole Illinois co-founder Raúl Dorado gave an eyewitness account from inside Stateville prison: “I witnessed my friends become unresponsive and get carried out on canvas stretchers.”

Parole Illinois is an inside/outside prison campaign founded by men inside Stateville prison, joined by women in Logan prison, and supported by those of us on the outside. In 1978, parole was abolished in Illinois, and in the subsequent years, individuals were given excessively long sentences. The campaign was started by my longtime pen pal Joe Dole, serving life without parole (LWOP) inside Stateville prison. After years of exchanging letters, I began helping Joe publish his articles (like this one and this one), until one of them was read by Shari Stone-Mediatore (pictured above), who is now managing director of Parole Illinois, and, in turn, she hired me as downstate organizer for the campaign.

Most rewarding about working for Parole Illinois is that it has put me in touch with people incarcerated, their families and loved ones. It has been tremendously rewarding.

I continue this work after losing my dear friend, Greg Koger, in March 2020. Greg did ten years in Illinois prisons, more than half that time in solitary confinement. He was the first person to teach me about the horrors of prison. He was released some 15 years ago, but he could never escape that prison cell. Now he is finally free.

This past summer I published an interview with Maya Schenwar and Vikki Law, authors of the new book Prison By Any Other Name, about the failed alternatives to incarceration.

Most of my time has been spent at home with my boy Jake―now 9 years old―playing chess, riding bicycle, and learning to play guitar. While COVID has disrupted our daily life, it has allowed us to become so much closer. It is time well spent. I feel in the future I will actually miss these crazy COVID times.  

I’ve Gone Viral! Writing to Live


Here I am with board member Azark Cobbs and youth of DREAAM.

I’m stepping into 2020 on the right foot. My article, “The Trump Administration Just Opened a New Immigrant Prison in Rural Michigan,” published at In These Times, was shared on social media by filmmaker Michael Moore, and then picked up by Elizabeth Warren. It’s the most widely-circulated article of my career.

In These Times cover

Immigration activists protest in Michigan.

Over the last year, I’ve made the transition to making my living as a full-time writer. Sometimes I write for money. Sometimes I write for myself. Sometimes I write to divert resources to projects I support.

I’m reaching a larger audience now than I ever did as an academic. And I’m telling stories not told anywhere else.

I’m grateful to be working with Tracy Dace and DREAAM House (which stands for Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males). It is an after-school program with the goal of disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m doing fundraising to provide educational opportunities for marginalized youth in our community.

I’m part of a community engagement team at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, along with Tracy Dace and professor Ruby Mendenhall. Our mission is to build campus-community relationships. I’m the writer on the team.

We got the news earlier this year from those on the inside that the cost of phone calls from Illinois prisons is now the cheapest in the country, the result of our prison phone justice campaign. I wrote about the victory for Truthout.

I’ve also been doing media support for the Freedom To Learn campaign, supporting my friends at Education Justice Project, and Prison+Neighborhood Art Project. It grew out of a media scandal over banned books at the Danville prison. My book The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers was among those taken off the shelves. So now I can add to my resumé my status as a banned author.

Lastly, I’m saddened by the passing of Michael Flug, archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh collection in Chicago, who I collaborated with on The Negro in Illinois. Thank you Michael for trusting me to take on the project.

Wishing everyone the stars in 2020!

Why I Write to #AbolishICE

Jake kindergarten last dayOn the last day of Kindergarten, I got a big hug from my six-year-old, Jake. Before he was born, one of my mentors, Antonia Darder, a critical pedagogy scholar, told me that having children gives you a new reason to do social justice work. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words have come back to me. It’s because of my own kid that I have been writing about families separated by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

These families have come a long way from small towns in Mexico and Guatemala so that their children can have a better life. I envision a future when all our children can play together. I believe it’s not too far away.

On July 4th, we raised $1,000 and a carload of food to take to a woman whose husband was arrested by ICE agents. While the breadwinner was gone, their three children had eaten all the food in the house. She was also seven months pregnant. I took Jake with me to deliver the donations. My friends Tariq and Kristina and their three children joined us. All the children shared toys in the living room while we spoke with the mother. Her nine-year-old boy, Diego, translated for us. It was the perfect way to spend Independence Day this year.

DiegoDiego’s father is now back home, but federal authorities are moving fast with what they call “removal proceedings.” I plan to write about the father’s arrest, but I have been working to confirm his story, and get permission from the family. There are revelations about Sheriff Dan Walsh’s cooperation with ICE that I cannot yet fully disclose. Families don’t just deserve to be together, but they should have the right to be free, to move, to work, to remain free from state surveillance and criminalization.

I want to tell the story of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of Midwestern cities like my own. Lucia Maldonado, of the Latino Partnership, has helped me bring these stories to light. My most recent piece in Smile Politely is about one family with four children whose American Dream was shattered by a visit from ICE agents. Their oldest son has hopes of going to college on a soccer scholarship, but now that his father may be deported he will have to work to support the family.

Earlier this year, a man was picked up by ICE named Juan who worked in the kitchen at Siam Terrace, a popular Thai restaurant in downtown Urbana. I wrote about his arrest in another article for Smile Politely, “ICE on Main Street: Undocumented Immigrants Arrested in Urbana.” In June, I helped organize an “ICE Out of CU” rally at the Drury Inn hotel where ICE agents stay when they are in town.

CharlieI also continue to write about families impacted by mass incarceration in the United States. I sat with Black youth at a forum, “Challenging Electronic Monitoring in Cook County,” at the University of Chicago put on by my friend and comrade James Kilgore. I wrote this report for his blog “#NoDigitalPrisons.” Charlie Patton, a youth from Chicago’s West Side, reminded me of the hip hop kids I knew in Los Angeles. One of his paintings was displayed on an easel in the front of the room. Too shy to say much, Charlie sat next to me and doodled in his sketchbook.

Less than a year after I wrote in Truthout about General Inch, Trump’s appointment for head of federal prisons, he has resigned after a fight over national prison reform policy.

Still writing about my academic interests, I published a book review in the magazine Against the Current about Tim Jackson’s long-awaited publication, Pioneering Cartoonists of Color.

Charles White mother and childThis summer I went to see an exhibit of Charles White, African American artist of the Black Chicago Renaissance, whose work graces the cover of my book The Negro in Illinois. I got a personal tour by John Murphy who helped curate the show currently up at the Art Institute of Chicago. Earlier this year we were on a panel at the annual conference of the College Language Association.

At home, I continue to practice #slowgrowth, this year’s hashtag. I take care of my houseplants. I planted a Japanese maple out back by the Boneyard Creek. I picked my first tomatoes in five-plus years. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of my labor―strawberries, raspberries, and cherries!!


Paving a Path for #Liberation

Open Scene MN group photo 1My job as a full-time activist at the IMC has been a reminder that we must not only work for our own freedom, but that we must empower others to find their own vision of liberation. I have seen other activist friends burn out, become famous, have babies, face emotional breakdowns, and overcome health crises. When we falter, are there others to help carry the load? How do we pave a path for others to tread? How do we get there together? How do we build our own collective power?

I have been inspired by the youth who have been a part of Open Scene, an NEA-funded series of four workshops held the IMC to build the next generation of artists in Urbana-Champaign. It’s being coordinated by my amazing co-worker Blair Ebony Smith. One of the highlights was a weekend with the hip hop group Mother Nature, who took the above photo with our participants. We’ve seen several fruitful collaborations come out of this project, including a “Self Love” open mic with Uni High graduate Madie Gardner. We’re also starting a new music studio with Jamie Gatson, a friend Kiwane Carrington who in 2009 was killed by Champaign police. One of our other workshop leaders, Derek Linzy, who played with Prince, has rented a room at the IMC to teach music classes.

I have also been working to support Joe Dole, a writer incarcerated in Stateville prison, through creating a Facebook page and publishing his articles in Truthout. Morey Williams invited Joe to read a paper over the telephone for a conference at Villanova University where she teaches. A version of the article, “A Plea From Inside: Prisons Must Offer College Classes” was just published in Truthout. There’s a growing group of people, that also includes Shari Stone-Mediatore, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Dina Molito, of Minutes Before Six, who are working together to give greater visibility to Joe’s dispatches from beyond prison walls.

A report I co-authored, “We Are the Color of Freedom: Reflections from Resisting Mass Surveillance in the Trump Era,” has been released from a summit I attended at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.. It captures the cutting-edge of grassroots activists working at the intersection of digital surveillance and racial justice. You can read about the summit in the Washington Post.

I also published in The Public i an investigation into the police killing last year of Richie Turner, a homeless man who was a familiar site in Campustown, after corresponding with his sister Chandra Turner who is outraged by his death.

It’s looking like I’ll pass my second bill in two years this summer. HB 2738: Protect Prison Visits Bill has been approved by the Illinois legislature and is headed to the Governor for a signature. If passed, it would be the most comprehensive bill to date regulating video visitation, the increasingly widespread practice of replacing jail and prison visits with Skype-style video screens.

On a more personal note, I’ll be in Chicago this coming weekend for the Printer’s Row Lit Fest. I’ll be signing copies of my book The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers at the University of Illinois Press tent at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 10, 2017. [You can read more about my book in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.] Come buy a copy and have it signed!

Thanks to my friends and comrades who have helped me make this move to full-time activist!






A New Year and a New Career!

It’s been a year since my last blogpost, and in that time I have made the transition to full-time activist. It has been a difficult decision to put my academic career to the side. With the election of Donald Trump, I feel the decision is even more timely. Now more than ever, we need bring our communities together for what will likely be the fight of our lives, indeed the fight FOR our lives.

On the floor of the Illinois Legislature with Wandjell Harvey-Robinson and Sen. Jacqueline Collins for passage of a bill to lower the cost of prison phone calls.


I’m now happy to say I’m running a community center, with 30,000 square feet to fill with activities. In August, I accepted a position as Program Director at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (IMC). It is, I realize, my dream job. I’ve written about community centers during the Depression, but now am operating one. I get to make the IMC a “big tent” for various grassroots activists, youth of color, immigrants, hackers, artists, and community members. I continue to promote popular education though the #PopEd series I’ve launched. I get to host events by talented local hip hop musicians. Through our NEA-funded project Open Scene, we have an assembled an amazing group of local youth to re-vision the IMC and Urbana.

Over the last year, I have taken part in several campaign victories. A highlight was passing a bill in the Illinois legislature to lower the cost of phone calls in prison with my longtime friend State Representative Carol Ammons, and Senator Jacqueline Collins [pictured above]. It was also a chance to work with Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, who I’ve been delighted to watch blossom as she became a spokesperson for the campaign.

More recently, along with Francis Boyle, University of Illinois law professor, Karen Aram, local peace activist, and members of CU Immigration Forum, we passed an ordinance re-affirming Urbana as a Sanctuary City!

It has been a year since the death of Toya Frazier in the local jail, and a million-dollar lawsuit has been filed by the family. I’m hopeful that my story on Frazier’s death has played a role in bringing some justice for her family. The story of three deaths in the county jail over the last year also helped the local organization Build Programs Not Jails defeat a jail referendum and argue for alternatives to incarceration.

I’ve assisted Joseph Dole, incarcerated writer at Stateville prison in Illinois, to publish two of his stories in Truthout, recently one on the closing of the last panopticon in the US at Stateville. I also manage the Facebook page for Joe where you can see more of his art and writings.

I also published several articles myself in Truthout, one of the most important online news outlets today with a solid track record of covering mass incarceration issues. Thanks to Truthout, I was able to write my first commissioned article for a national publication. My second commissioned piece was just published on the “Orange Crush,” what is the first in-depth story of a tactical team that is infamous in Illinois prisons.


In the past year, I traveled to Oakland with the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), Detroit for the Allied Media Conference, and Washington DC to attend the Color of Freedom summit at Georgetown University. Still keeping a foot in academia, this Spring I attended a regional American Studies conference at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, where I caught up with David Roediger, Betsy Esch, and other colleagues.

I also made some new friends in Chicago, having lunch with Truthout’s Maya Schenwar at Heartland Café, eating pizza with Max Suchan and Sharlyn Grace from the Chicago Community Bond Fund, watching a Cubs game with Freddy Martinez of Lucy Parsons Labs, and drinking coffee with Moni Cosby and Holly Krig who work with incarcerated mothers.

For 2017, I’m making plans for a FOIA workshop with Sarah Lazare, Alternet reporter and former CU resident. We’re holding a forum on solitary confinement with Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, as well as my new friend Brian Nelson, and my old friend Gregory Koger, who both have experienced long periods of isolation in prison and lived to tell their story.

Also this year, expect to see me posting more political pieces here on my blog as we fight back against the coming Trump regime.

Thanks to my all of my friends and comrades along the way who have helped me to make this transition.

Wishing everybody love and solidarity in 2017!



Happy Birthday Langston Hughes!

February 1 is both the birthday of Langston Hughes, renowned African American poet, and the beginning of Black History Month. I would like to share on of my favorites, a live recording of Langston Hughes performing his most famous poem, “The Weary Blues,” on a 1958 television program.

Now more than ever, we need to support institutions keeping African American history alive like the Carter G. Woodson Branch of the Chicago Public Library. Recently, there was a community forum attended by 100 people concerned about the delayed repairs to the library, as can be seen by the scaffolding which still remains on the front of the building along Halsted Street.

In other news, this March I will be in Lawrence, Kansas for the Mid-America American Studies Association conference, “Battleground Midwest: Defining Who and What Matters in the U.S. and Beyond” at the University of Kansas. I’m on a panel titled “From Coal Fields to Kitchenettes” about Illinois civil rights history.

A review of my first book, The Black Cultural Front, by Graham Barnfield, appeared recently in an excellent issue of Against The Current. It was included in a Black History Feature along with an interview with one of my mentors, Mary Helen Washington, as well as a review of William Maxwell’s book F.B. Eyes by the journalist John Woodford.

A review of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers by Julia Mickenberg (an old friend from Claremont, CA), appeared in The Annals of Iowa, the publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa. The book contains, she writes, “a lyrical, quirky, and often poetic set of stories about forgotten figures, phenomena, sites, and processes in Illinois history.”

Wishing you health and happiness in the New Year! BD

A Century of Black History: ASALH Events and Du Bois Lecture

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson, founder of ASALH

This year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is celebrating its 100th birthday! Founded September 9, 1915, in Chicago, it was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History.

Harsh portrait

Vivian G. Harsh

I attended an event at the Woodson library organized by the Chicago chapter of ASALH as part of the 100th anniversary events. It honored Vivian G. Harsh, a librarian, collector of black books, and longtime member/officer in what was then called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. There I got to chat with Michael Flug, archivist and co-collaborator on “The Negro in Illinois.”

M Flug BD

Later in September, I’ll be headed to ASALH’s national conference in Atlanta for the centennial celebration. On the way, I’ll be stopping at the historic Highlander Folk Center in Eastern Tennessee for their annual homecoming.

Also coming up on September 19, at 2 p.m., the Woodson library is hosting a talk by Northwestern Professor Aldon Morris about his important new book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology.

Scholar Denied



Lastly, I’ll be at Jane Addams Bookshop in Champaign giving a talk for “The Negro in Illinois” on Sunday, October 18 at 1 p.m. Stay tuned for more to come!



Artist and Writer Talks at the IMC: Jason Patterson & Brian Dolinar

Jason Patterson eventI’m happy to be collaborating with artist Jason Patterson for this upcoming event:

“Exploring African American History in Illinois & Throughout the United States”

Saturday, July 18, 2015 – 7:30pm10:00pm
At the IMC Gallery (202 S. Broadway, Urbana)

Talks on Our History and its’ Artistic Representations

With writer Brian Doliner, editor of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers,
and artist Jason Patterson, who’s work in portraiture highlights cultural and
political significance within the African American narrative.

57th St. Books: Paperback Release of “The Negro in Illinois”

57th Street BooksI’m happy to announce the official release of the paperback issue of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers! On Saturday, April 18, 2-4 p.m., I will be celebrating at 57th Street Books, one of the premier independent bookstores in Chicago. I’m honored to be joined by Chris Benson, University of Illinois journalism professor.

You can find the event on Facebook or at the 57th St. Books website.

My talk will be titled, “A New Deal Town: The WPA & Black Writers on Chicago’s South Side.” I’ll be discussing the influence of the “Chicago School of Sociology” on black WPA workers, many of whom were students at the University of Chicago including Horace Cayton, Arna Bontemps, and Katherine Dunham.

In this photo, Horace Cayton and Richard Wright observe a map of the South Side.

Cayton&Wright with a map of the South Side.

Among them was Horace Cayton who, as a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Chicago, supervised some two dozen WPA projects. This research became the basis of Black Metropolis, the landmark sociological work he co-authored with St. Clair Drake. Although never a college student, Richard Wright had sought out Louis Wirth, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, who gave him several book titles to read.

I’ll also talk about a letter I discovered by Horace Cayton registering his “most emphatic protest” to the idea of a study of the South Side conducted by the University of Chicago under the auspices of the WPA. The letter was written before Cayton was on the WPA payroll. Ironically, it helped him get a job administering a similar project that would be black-led.