“Did I have a Chance?”

This piece was commissioned by the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in collaboration with the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project. As part of an exhibit called Freedom Dreams In An Age of Mass Incarceration, artists were asked to respond to essays written by authors living inside a maximum security prison.

I created 72 images in response to the words of William Buck, who is incarcerated at Stateville Prison just outside of Chicago. I was struck by Buck’s references to fate, chance, destiny, and the lack of control he felt about the direction of his life from a very early age. It is a 2D work depicting the odds of rolling different sets of dice at a game of craps. I’ve illustrated a dice probability chart using black and white photo paper and a cameraless process called chemigram.

Here is Buck’s essay:

By William Buck, R21689

I want to write about life, my life in particular, but more generally about all the complexities of life through my eyes!

I begin my life on April 16, 1982 (birthstone diamond). My dad left almost immediately and my mom died just a few years later. My childhood was typical of the many homes Black people live in. I want to stop right there. Since my life is typical of many homes Blacks come from, were the next things that happened to me already predestined? Did I really have a chance? And if I did, how did the other things happen in my life? Why weren’t they joyous? Let me try to answer some of these questions.

After my mom died, my baby brother and I were separated from our other siblings. We were taken to live with my dad’s sister, but my grandmother came with the police to get us. At that moment my ability to understand life started. It was pure chaos is how I would describe it. Drugs and violence inside and outside of the house, and although I was still very young I was always smart. I did a lot of introspection as a kid wondering about why things were this way. I was almost killed several times before my thirteenth birthday. In fact, I was already in jail at twelve for murder. The circumstance of that was a result of life from where I was “from.” Was that predetermined? I wish not. But me taking a murder case for an older neighborhood guy – to save him – was life, right?

The conundrum about life is that you want the best (supposedly) but get the worst. As much as I try to think and put it in to perspective the harder it is. It is said you are totally responsible for your actions, but my experience is not that. First, if you don’t know any better, it’s harder to do better. But even for the sake of the argument, one says you can simply rise above whatever. I personally tried that, but unfortunately for me my fate was sealed.

So after the many years of incarceration taking the blame for another person, when I was released I became a victim of the system in its worst way. I had self-educated while in Illinois Youth Center-St. Charles and Joliet. I got my GED, taught myself other skills, allowed myself to develop different morals and was preparing for a new “life” when that was abruptly snatched when I was nineteen. The system, using my youth record, allowed some very crooked detectives to frame me for the crime I’ve now spent most of “life” locked in a cage. But being the constant seeker of the wisdom of life, I keep bettering myself.

So the last question I asked at the beginning of this essay was, did I have a chance? It is not rhetorical. I see life as something that we all are just doing. I personally don’t believe my chance to enjoy life was as ideal as I would have hoped. Depending on what side of the coin you come from, I believe you will argue either side. A conundrum! What I learned is this: no mater how much we want to believe that we have control, we have very little when it comes to “life.” The few things that we are able to do with life pales in comparison to the control life has over us!

I started with the odds stacked against me and, more likely than not, I will never overcome these odds. For all intents and purposes, I’ll lose my “life” here in a cage. I started in a figurative cage, which now may end in a literal cage. Life!