2017 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
"There was a time I believed prisons existed to rehabilitate people, to make our communities safer. . . . When I saw for the first time (but not the last) a mother sobbing and clutching her son when visiting hours were up, only to be physically pried off and escorted out by guards, I knew nothing about that made me safer. This is the heart of this country's prison system. And the prison system has become the heart of America." Walidah Imarisha, from the introduction.
This is no romanticized tale of crime and punishment. The three lives in this creative nonfiction account are united by the presence of actual harm—sometimes horrific violence. Walidah Imarisha, a sexual assault survivor, brings us behind prison walls to visit her incarcerated brother Kakamia and his fellow inmate Jimmy "Mac" McElroy, a member of the Irish gang the Westies. Together they explore the questions: People can do unimaginable damage to one another—and then what? What do we as a society do? What might redemption look like?
Imarisha doesn't flinch as she guides us through the complexities and contradictions of transformative justice, eschewing theory for a much messier reality. The result is a nuanced and deeply personal analysis that allows readers to connect emotionally with the stories she shares, and the people behind them.
"We live in a violent state, run by a violent economic trap, that a violent prison system perpetuates and hides. The reality of violence in the US is so pervasive that the state has all the mirrors in the house covered up. Angels with Dirty Faces is a memoir of a reality so crucial and transformative that the state is desperate to keep it locked out of our collective consciousness. And yet we live it. Here, Imarisha is doing the work that we all must do if we are going to have the world we deserve. She is looking deeply at the violence of prisons and the lives and impact of people who have engaged in violent acts with a love that never stops believing that we are more than the violence that structures our days. There is hope, love, and honesty here. And a model for the conversations we need to have right now, right here in hell." Alexis Pauline Gumbs
"Angels with Dirty Faces is a powerful exploration of America’s prison nation. Using three disparate yet interconnected stories, including her own, Walidah Imarisha gives us an unvarnished take on prison abolition. Beyond slogans or strategy, we are left with people, in all our imperfections and possibilities. This is a bold, beautiful, and absolutely necessary book, told with urgency and passion." Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
"Some authors approach the subject of incarceration from a great distance, but with Angels with Dirty Faces, author/activist Walidah Imarisha goes as deep as any writer can without actually serving time. The result is a highly personalized and intimate portrait by a courageous writer who goes beyond clichés and platitudes. This book is a bracing, clear-eyed exploration of one of the most important issues of our time: the growing incarceration rate in the U.S., and the consequences of this for citizens both inside and outside prison walls." T.J. English, New York Times best-selling author of Where the Bodies Were Buried and The Westies
"Walidah Imarisha has written a brave book. It demonstrates both the universality and distinctiveness of three lives enmeshed through the US prison system. Imarisha pushes us to give up easy distinctions between innocence and guilt, good and evil, and to experience punishment and imprisonment as the messy, complex systems they are. And she reminds us that, while there are no winners in this game, it is one replete with compassion, care, and resistance enough to permeate walls and cages." Rachel Herzing
About the Author
Walidah Imarisha is a writer, organizer, educator and spoken word artist. She is the co-editor of Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements
(AK Press, Spring 2015)and author of the collection of poetry Scars/Stars. Imarisha has also facilitated writing workshops, for students in grades three through twelve, in community centers, youth detention facilities, and women's prisons.