A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home”

By Kirsten Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers

A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home” at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

Installation images courtesy of Evan Jenkins

The second project of collaborators Circles & Ciphers — a hip-hop based restorative justice organization in Rogers Park, Chicago — and Chicago-based Dutch artist Kirsten Leenaars started with an open call for letters from individuals who are currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail. They received 46 letters, and each letter writer was compensated for their creative efforts. Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers then collaborated closely with 15 selected letter writers to create a documentary video piece.

Weaving their deeply personal stories through performative actions and image making, the video asks the viewer to reflect on the ways the prison-industrial complex affects individuals, families, communities and a city. Footage includes excerpts from the letters displayed on walls, buildings and street surfaces throughout different neighborhoods in Chicago identified by the letter writers as their home communities; interviews with community members responding to the letters’ text; recorded audio of the letter writers reading their own letters over the phone while calling from Cook County Jail; a performance by Circles & Ciphers youth of freestyle ‘serenades’ in front of the jail; and an airplane flying over Cook County Jail with a banner featuring the phrase excerpted from one of the letters: jail is not my home. All these moments are documented and are edited together as a letter to the city, amplifying and echoing the deeply personal stories and experiences of young people that are often marginalized in this society.

In addition to the documentary, Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers produced the publication, Till My Feet Hit the Warm Concrete: Letters from Young People Incarcerated, which includes all 46 letters they received. The letters contain poems, hip-hop verses, personal stories and philosophical reflections on the notion of freedom within the context of America. The publication is an important element of their project because it fully represents the multitude of experiences and perspectives that were expressed in the letters. It also serves as an educational tool, as it highlights restorative justice practices and inspires readers to imagine alternative models to the current criminal justice system while providing concrete ways that readers can become active contributors to this conversation.

The world premier of A Letter to the City: “jail is not my home” by artist Kirsten Leenaars and Circles & Ciphers, followed by a panel discussion with the artists, will take place at Weinberg/Newton Gallery on December 9, 2022 from 6:00 to 8:00pm.


AnnMarie Brown (she, her) is a radical restorative justice practitioner and a fashion designer. In 2017 she served as the Hub Director for Circles & Ciphers through an initiative called Envisioning Justice. Through this initiative she worked to continue to educate youth about the carceral system through the arts. Ms. Brown has continued her journey as the current Co-Executive Director of Circles & Ciphers. AnnMarie has also curated her own fashion brand called Rafasi Clothing. She works to provide healing for young people through restorative justice practices and her own work as a designer.

Born Nigerian American, from the North Side of Chicago, Akeem Soyan (he, him) is an artist and Co-Executive Director of Circles & Ciphers. He started off attending Circles & Ciphers back in 2015 after dropping out of school to pursue music. It was through his love of art and people that he developed a commitment to abolition and restorative justice. Since then, he has focussed on connecting with young people and organizations through the mediums of art and community. All in all, he hopes to inspire. Soyan’s fourth project, “when wingz spread...” was released in 2022. www.keemosav.com

Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. www.circlesandciphers.org/

Kirsten Leenaars (she, her), is a Chicago-based video artist. Through her work she examines how our collective imagination produces and shapes our lived realities. Leenaars engages with communities in long-term collaborative processes to explore how, through the co-creation of moving images, new forms of relating, being and looking at the world can be imagined. She is currently a Professor at the Department of Contemporary Practices, SAIC. www.kirstenleenaars.com

Nikia Watkins (she, her) is a plant lover, aspiring tattoo artist, community organizer and creative. Her work in Chicago has included fighting for the liberation of all Black folks. In 2020 Nikia was hired by Circles & Circles to help coordinate the Youth Care Collective, and since then she has continued her passions of supporting young people currently and formerly impacted by the carceral system. Along with her work at Circles, Nikia also works for Liberation Library, creating and sending newsletters to young people in Illinois jails and prisons. She graduated with her B.A. in Sociology and Gender Studies in May 2022 from The University of Illinois at Chicago.