Credit: Facebook

In the center of an empty stage, in an empty room backlit in red and blue, west-side artist, organizer, and prison abolitionist Bella Bahhs spoke into the camera.

“Ain’t I a woman? Ain’t I matter? Don’t I count?” She paused for emphasis. “Or you counting me out? Why you counting my blessings? Ain’t it about time I get what’s mine?”

Bahhs (an acronym for Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) was performing for the “We Gon’ Be Alright” virtual youth concert, which featured young artists and musicians on the mayor’s office’s Facebook Live on April 23 as part of an initiative to spotlight local artists during the shelter-in-place order. As a raptivist, a term she uses after author-rapper-activist Sister Souljah, Bahhs wants to make art that can “bridge what is popular with what is political, and make the connection that what is political is personal and therefore should be popular.” For the last few months, the census has been one of the focuses of her research and performance, the political issue she hopes to see bridged with the personal.

Her poem, which speaks to the radical potential of filling out the census, has circulated online, in several Facebook Live videos and Zoom presentations, for anyone to hear, but it was written for the formerly incarcerated people, and especially women, in her community whom the census has failed. The daughter of formerly incarcerated parents, Bahhs is committed to working toward the decarceration of Black women. She’s the founder of Sister Survivor Network, a group that provides support to young Black women impacted by the justice system, and a cochair for a working group that identifies methods to alleviate harm to women, their children, and their families at the Women’s Justice Institute, an advocacy group that seeks to decrease the Illinois women’s prison population and implement gender-responsive policies in women’s prisons. “Once a woman is entangled in the legal system, so are her children, so are her family by proxy, so is their larger community by proxy,” she says.

Her first in-person performance of this poem, which was commissioned by WJI, was for a small group of women at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison about 30 miles north of Springfield, in mid-March. Bahhs and two of her WJI colleagues, Melissa Hernandez and Alexis Mansfield, drove down to the prison to perform the poem and talk about the impact of the census with the women, who were set to be released within the next 30 days. (This was just before the shelter-in-place order went into effect; Mansfield says they were one of the last groups to be allowed into Logan before the prison went into lockdown.)

The visit marked the beginning of WJI’s census outreach efforts, which are focused on women who are “justice-involved”—who have been arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise impacted by the justice system. The Chicago-based nonprofit, which aims to decarcerate women and girls and to develop gender-responsive practices within the state’s justice system, received funding to do this work at the beginning of the year from the YWCA.

By the end of their teach-in, Bahhs says, the census had clearly taken on a political meaning for the attendees. “The women’s eyes were just lit up with this knowledge they had, and the whole vibration of the room changed to one of hopeful resistance,” she says. “[They were saying] ‘I’m going to fill out this census because I know the women I’m leaving behind here don’t have a choice. If I have any choice in where resources go, I’m going to do my part to direct those resources to our communities of return.'”

Illinois residents who are incarcerated as of April 1, Census Day, have no choice but to be counted at their “usual residence,” the zip code in which they’re imprisoned: the Illinois Department of Corrections provides the information they have on file for each person to the census bureau. Because of this counting practice, the approximately 22,000 predominantly Black and Brown prisoners who hail from Cook County—and who make up about 60 percent of the entire incarcerated population in Illinois, according to IDOC data—are not counted in their home communities.

The census bureau’s formula, which counts incarcerated people away from home, does not affect the total amount of federal funding that Illinois receives: the bulk of federal funds are allocated based on state population, not city or county population. But it doesn’t help the communities most burdened by incarceration in Chicago, like Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, and Englewood—many of which have low census response rates, and which are predominantly Black neighborhoods with the exception of Humboldt Park (which by the last census community survey was 35.2 percent Black, 56.1 percent Latinx)—get the resources they need.

“The census is so important for Illinois and for communities so that they are properly funded and resourced,” says Mansfield, a lawyer and adviser with WJI. “And we know that for people who are justice-involved, the main way they get counted is if they are in jail or prison.”

While reform legislation did not pass in time to change the way that incarcerated people are counted in Illinois for the 2020 Census, WJI points out that there’s opportunity to provide better and more accurate information about the census among those who made the transition out of prison before April 1 this year. This is especially the case for women, who represent the fastest growing prison population nationwide, and are more often than not at the head of a household: more than 60 percent of incarcerated women, and 80 percent of women in jail, have children under the age of 18. And then there’s the generational ripple effect of not filling out a census form: if a primary caregiver doesn’t fill out the census, then that means their children risk being missed on the census, too. And fewer counted residents mean, ultimately, fewer funds—for child care, Medicaid, Link, community centers, and more—earmarked for that community.

There are many reasons why women may choose not to fill out the census. Bahhs, whose parents were formerly incarcerated, says that government distrust runs strong among those who have been touched by the justice system. “I come from a community of people who were punished for having men in their households,” she says, referencing the “man-in-the-house rule,” through which public benefit programs would revoke benefits from single, mostly Black, mothers if they were found to be living with a man in the house. The rule was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1968. “The idea now that you will have resources given to you because of who you account for living in your household . . . we don’t know that government, we don’t know that America.”

Rather than gloss over the racism at play in the history, and present, of the nation’s census in her poem, Bahhs brings it to the forefront. She references the early history of the undercount of Black people in the census (“I want the whole American pie; you wanna keep giving me three-fifths”), and its reverberations today, in the form of “prison gerrymandering,” which is when the often-rural districts that house prisons are drawn to include the prison population, which strengthens those residents’ voting power. But not for long, she assures her audience, referencing organizing efforts to block gerrymandering at the statewide level: “But by the 2030 Census, abolitionists will have successfully organized against this racist practice in electoral practice.”

“The call for the poem is that by filling out the census you are actively resisting racist practices,” she says. “That is a much larger call than to say, ‘Fill this out because the government wants you to.'”

WJI was founded in 2015 to work to push for gender-responsive, trauma-informed justice reform, to better care for incarcerated women. (The majority of incarcerated women and girls have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.) The WJI-penned Women’s Correctional Services Act, passed in 2017, created a women’s correctional services division within IDOC and trauma-informed programs for women and training for prison officers. In 2018, WJI created a task force of legislators, officials, and formerly incarcerated women to reduce the Illinois women’s prison population (currently 2,100) by 50 percent by 2025.

This is the institute’s first time organizing around the census. WJI received funding to commission Bahhs’s poem and to conduct teach-ins from the YWCA, which is providing census grants to organizations that work with two “hard-to-count” communities—LGBTQ+ and housing-insecure people—on behalf of the Illinois Department of Human Services. The state set aside an unprecedented $29 million for census outreach this year, amidst fears of an increasing undercount. YWCA had partnered with WJI on a project in 2019, and knew they wanted to work with them again because of their “holistic approach” to advocacy, says Angela Accurso, YWCA coordinator for public policy and external affairs.

“WJI sits at a very specific intersection given that a large number of these women [in reentry] are LGBTQ+, and there are high instances of homelessness and unstable housing,” says Accurso. “There are so many intersections between those communities.”

Women emerging from the justice system—in Illinois, that’s over 36,000 women who are released from prisons and jails annually—are more likely to experience homelessness or housing insecurity than formerly incarcerated men, studies show.

For women returning to their home community who don’t have stable housing, they might be doubled up with another family, or moving between households or shelters. Trying to reach people who might be experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity is a challenge, Accurso says, and it’s been especially challenging in the middle of a pandemic, as the possibility of in-person outreach is limited, and Internet or phone access may be limited for someone who’s struggling with housing and work.

WJI census outreach organizer Hernandez, who is a formerly incarcerated parent, remembers how difficult it was to get back on her feet while caring for her young son because of the barriers to employment and public housing that come with incarceration and felony charges. “I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t even get a job at Walmart, so when Bella says that families are impacted—yes,” she says. “I couldn’t even support my kids.” Later, with help from Mansfield, then a lawyer at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, she was able to seal her record, which opened up doors that had previously been closed to her. She now runs a nonprofit called the Puerto Rico Project, through which she offers direct aid and advocacy to victims of human trafficking from Puerto Rico in Chicago.

Increasing the count wouldn’t directly change the experience of women in reentry, or eliminate those barriers for women with felony charges. But Hernandez says it’s empowering to learn and share knowledge about how the census can determine funding for grocery stores, hospitals, and “everything that would help us out instead of [having to] struggle so much.”

To reach the greatest number of women, WJI decided to work primarily with local transition houses and programs like Safer Foundation, which provides employment, education, and other support services to those in reentry from several south and west side locations. They’ve also provided training to Safer Foundation’s employees, so that they can serve as educational resources to clients. Since the shelter-in-place order went into effect, all of WJI’s teach-ins have been through the video-chat program Zoom.

With the new realities of COVID-19 in group facilities, the WJI census outreach team is unsure how many other presentations they’ll be able to organize before the extended census response deadline of October 31. Delayed by COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place order, the timeline both for self-response and for census bureau outreach to households that haven’t responded has been extended by several months, which means that organizations have more time to reach out to their communities. Hernandez says that they’re playing with the idea of sending out prerecorded presentations, and in the meantime, they’re focusing on distributing gift packages of essentials like PPE, underwear, and snacks, along with information about the census, through the Women’s Treatment Center on the near west side.

Meanwhile, their message continues to spread online. Bahhs’s video performance on the WJI Facebook page has garnered 1,400 views to date—and the mayor’s Facebook Live youth concert, just 13 minutes into which Bahhs performs, has 37,400 views.

“I think it’s important that we uplift the value of the census because while we cannot control pandemics, we can learn from the history and from the present and know that more pandemics are going to happen,” Bahhs says. “When we fill out the census we can be confident that we are doing something preventive for the next ten years. We are saying, ‘I am here, and I need hospitals. I need doctors. I need homes.'”  v

This story was made possible by a grant from Forefront administered by Public Narrative.