On Prisons, Policing, and Poetry: An Interview with Anne-Marie Cusac

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Inside the small, dimly lit Gage Gallery on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, there are voices. As you meander through the exhibit, “Not Forgotten,” which pays homage to those commemorated in Chicago’s street memorials, the voices of the loved ones they left behind reverberate from loudspeakers throughout the room and tell their stories.

On the walls there are photographs of street memorials around the city. There’s one of a small red heart stuck to a pole near the location where a truck struck a biker. There’s one of a tee shirt affixed to a fence, necklaces hung around the collar, to mark the spot where a teenager lost his life in a shooting. There is a picture of a tree surrounded by diapers and blankets and teddy bears, so that no one will forget that in that spot, a newborn baby was dropped from an eighth-story window.

The photographs are accompanied by large-print quotations from loved ones describing their losses and how they cope. One woman leaves a Thanksgiving meal at her son’s memorial every November.

Behind these powerful displays of love is journalist Anne-Marie Cusac. Her partner, Thomas Ferrella, is the one who took the photographs, and Cusac is the woman behind the interviews, the one who sat down with parents, friends, brothers, and sisters, and listened.

I met with Cusac to discuss this project as well as the exceptional career she’s had over the past two decades. When she began working on “Not Forgotten,” she had no idea what to expect. That, she explained, was a good thing.

“That is the best way, I think, to not know what you’re going to get or what the effect will be, but to listen, and I tried to do that,” she said.

In listening, she learned how much love went into the creation of these memorials, how they give friends and family a feeling of access to those who are no longer here. The exhibit doesn’t provide any background information about the people who have died. We don’t know who was in a gang and who wasn’t. If it was death by shooting, we are not told why. Because that, Cusac explained, is not the point.

The point, she said, is that far too many deaths plague Chicago every year, and it is time to stop thinking about these human lives as statistics. The point is to remind people of the emotion behind every single tragedy we read about in newspapers or hear about on the news. The point is to recognize that behind every street memorial are the people who created it, the people who have been forced to learn to live without someone they love. The point, Cusac emphasized, is that “every person in this city who has died has someone who loves them.”

Before Cusac began this project, before she was a professor at Roosevelt University, before she was awarded the George Polk Award for journalism in 1996 for her work on the use of stun belt technology in prisons, she was a poet. The first person from her father’s side of the family to go to college, Cusac, inspired by a poetry class she took with Alan Shapiro, transferred from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism into the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences to major in creative writing.

“[Shapiro] made poetry seem linked to contemporary life in ways that other courses didn’t,” Cusac said. “So I switched.”

Her family wasn’t happy with her choice to move from a practical major to a creative one, but Cusac was confident in her decision.

“You might think that journalism would make you really think about society and culture and economic pressures and all these things, but my [poetry] professors gave me many things,” she said.

Cusac’s professors knew that she came from a working-class family, that her father had experienced wage cutbacks and a sympathy strike, and they urged her to use that in her work.

“My professors encouraged me to write about it and then to think about it in a bigger way,” she said.

For Cusac, poetry wasn’t just about the work she produced. Her classes challenged her to figure out who she was.

“To have professors not only teaching you about how to write poetry, but also looking at you and saying, “This is who you are and this is your place in society and you have access to knowledge that is being lost and it’s valuable,” was profound for me, and I’ve never forgotten it,” she said.

Now she does her best to inspire her own students the way her professors inspired her. Many of the young people she works with have grandparents who were immigrants, and she wants to help them understand that the stories they have to tell go beyond personal experience. They are, she maintains, part of something much bigger.

Despite her eventual foray into investigative journalism, Cusac never abandoned her love for poetry. She has written two books of poetry: Silkie and The Mean Days.

When Cusac graduated from Northwestern, she obtained a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University and then went on to get an MFA. She thought maybe she’d teach literature or go into publishing, but she realized she didn’t want to do the former and the latter required unpaid internships she couldn’t afford to take.

Her career as an investigative journalist began when she saw an advertisement for an associate editor role at a magazine in Madison, Wisconsin, called The Progressive. They hired her because they were looking to start a poetry project, but she quickly found herself craving an investigative story. After begging to be given a chance, she got one, and the first story she ever wrote put her on the map.

Her editor assigned her a story on the use of a new device, the stun belt, in prisons. She had never considered writing about prisoners before. She had wanted to write about labor. At the time she was assigned the project in the mid-1990s, there was, she explained, a huge culture of fear surrounding the incarcerated. There weren’t movements like there are now to increase prisoner rights and to recognize any mistreatment going on in American prisons.

“I definitely had a kind of anxiety about prisoners or a feeling that I didn’t really want to write about them,” she said. “But I was open, and I’ve always been a kind of open person to experience, and that’s part of what has made writing an adventure for me, that ‘Well, I’ll try it, and I’ll see what’s there' [mentality].”

When Cusac began doing research on the stun belt, she didn’t find much, just a few puff pieces promoting the device, praising the fact that prisoners could now wear this nonlethal belt around their waists so guards could shock them from a distance should they act inappropriately. Cusac said the stun belt pleased many people due to the great public fear of criminals. The idea was to use stun belts not only in prisons but also for restraint during trials.

Cusac wasn’t convinced that the stun belt was a positive addition to U.S. prisons. She found a researcher from Amnesty International who pointed out a very big problem: The shocking mechanism used to create the stun belt had only been tested on anesthetized swine. While pig and human hearts are similar, an anesthetized heart is not comparable to that of a conscious, moving being whose body could react to shock with adrenaline. Later, Cusac discovered that in a training session on how to use a device similar to the stun belt, one prison guard’s heart was knocked out of rhythm from a shock. It didn’t take long for him to die.

In an article called “Stunning Technology” published in The Progressive on July 1, 1996, Cusac exposed the problems with the stun belt. As a result of her work, Amnesty International began a campaign against it.

Amnesty was looking at many electroshock devices at the time. “With this one, because it is fastened around the waist so you’re basically in it fearing shock,” Cusac said, “they were quite concerned.” One major concern: that these devices would end up being exported to nations willing to use them for torture.

After her stun belt piece, Cusac continued to work on exposing various aspects of what goes on in U.S. prisons.

“You know, I just started going. I just kept going,” she said.

She continued to report on electroshock technology and also wrote about a device called a restraint chair. All of this work, combined with the work of many other journalists, led Amnesty International to approach the United Nations for help. The U.N. condemned the use of these devices in the United States, though unfortunately, the United States continued to use them.

“And that was the high point of my career!” Cusac said, laughing—though she admitted that, thanks to the work of many dedicated journalists and advocacy groups, she does think things are better than they used to be.

Cusac’s dedication to the prison system didn’t end at The Progressive. She also wrote a book, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (2009). The book explores why prisons shifted from rehabilitation efforts to strict punishment, as well as how that will change and who will lead the effort. In a controversial section, Cusac predicted that religious groups, especially right-wing Christians, would actually play a large role in reforming the prisons. As events have unfolded, it is beginning to look like she was right. Many religious groups have departed from decades-old opinions about what prisoners need and are campaigning for better treatment.

“I’m part of this MacArthur-funded roundtable on American punishment,” she explained. “And I went, and suddenly these people were coming up to me and telling me they cite me all the time, and they are not who you’d think would cite me. They are religious scholars and they’re saying, ‘Your book predicted this, and you’re right.’”

Cusac believes that the return of rehabilitative ideas is, surprisingly, coming from Republicans. “The Democrats became so worried about being pegged as soft on crime that they are more likely to be tough on crime,” she explained.

Much of Cusac’s work has spurred action and calls for change, so I asked her if, when beginning a story, she usually has a specific goal in mind.

“I never set out to end anything, no,” she said. Much of what motivates her is curiosity. She wants to know what’s going on. She explained that, of course, if people are being mistreated, then an effort should be made to fix that, but the way to improve things is a lot more complicated than eliminating any one device. Sometimes, Cusac said, we misplace the blame on who is causing the problem. We fail to realize that it isn’t necessarily the guards and the police, but rather the policies in place to guide them.

“I think that in policing a lot of them are told to get numbers and that they’re told to police low-level behaviors that lead to conflict,” she said. “I mean, that’s what the reporting shows. And I think in prisons, those technologies come in not because a guard with thirty years of experience says that’s going to help us but because a politician says let’s spend money on that . . . I don’t think there’s enough listening to guards.”

Another big problem Cusac pointed out: Guards do not receive enough training on how to deal with prisoners with a mental illness. They are merely given devices like the restraint chair and told to keep the peace.

At times, Cusac worries about her work having the wrong effect. We spent some time talking about her work on the increased and inappropriate use of Tasers in policing. She wrote a piece in 2004 called The Trouble with Tasers, but Cusac still could not say absolutely whether Tasers should be eliminated from use in our justice system.

“Tasers have a place, potentially,” she said. “If they are used and their use decreases use of guns on suspects, if that actually happens, and they are safer, if all of those things are true, they have a place in policing.”

She spoke slowly, quietly, emphasizing every if.

Like every person Cusac helped celebrate in “Not Forgotten” at the Gage Gallery, every single prisoner has someone out there who loves them. For her entire career, all Cusac has asked is that we keep on searching for a way to treat them right.


*Cusac's exhibit at Gage Gallery ended on December 3, 2016.