Ali Ali came to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a child in 1999. As a teenager, Ali was incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, first briefly and then, after a parole violation, for 18 months. While at Long Creek, he quickly got his GED, then started taking college classes and joined a theater program that focuses on the stories of incarcerated youth. He became artistic director of Maine Inside Out, which runs those programs, after his release.
But reintegrating into society after getting out of Long Creek wasn’t easy. Ali says it took him about 18 months to recover from the 18 months he was incarcerated. “I couldn’t walk on the street for the first few days by myself,” he tells Genius Black in this episode of the Black Owned Maine podcast. “Like, WalMart—I would have anxiety attacks.”
And Ali wasn’t the only one. Friends he’d made at Long Creek were dying, from suicide, overdoses, and other conditions caused by the trauma of prison life. The overdose death of one of them, a 23-year-old father of two who’d been a key member of Maine Inside Out, hit Ali particularly hard. After helping with his friend’s burial—literally standing in the grave and holding his friend’s body—Ali had a new sense of purpose. “I can’t take this shit no more. The system is destroying us,” he says. “So I decided… to really stay focused and see where we can go with our community.”
The result: Maine Youth Justice, a campaign to close Long Creek and reinvest its annual $18.2 million budget. It costs $300,000-$500,000 per kid to lock someone up at Long Creek, according to Ali; reinvesting that money in the community, rather than taking kids out of the community, would resolve a lot of issues, he says.
Genius Black and Ali dive deep into the meaning of the word “systemic,” discussing how racism is a structure and a system that can’t be fixed by small, localized efforts. “Education [rates] are really low for Blacks, and then if you look at poverty levels, they’re really low and death rates are really high,” says Ali. “So all the negative things are affecting the people of color, and how did this happen, right? Because all this had started from a different system when Spain took enslaved Africans from Africa and brought them to this country.”
Ali and Genius Black talk through segregation, redlining, policing, and the war on drugs, all of which combined to foster inequality, and led to the dramatically higher rates of incarceration of Black men. “Systems are created to maintain certain things, to achieve certain things, and they also tend to have the fingerprints of their creators on that system,” says Genius Black.
Today, says Ali, there are 2.3 million people who are currently arrested; 5 million people on probation; and 70 million people with criminal records. “That’s about 25% of this country, right? 25% of this country has a criminal record,” he says. “And that means that you’re discriminated against [in] housing, [in] jobs [and in] funding for school. These are issues that [mean] you can’t prosper.”
“Guess what?” Ali adds. “Every single part of this country is racist. Our dollar bills have to have slave masters. Our 13th amendment says slavery is still [legal for incarcerated people]. I got to do this work as a Black person. And I’ve been doing this work. You’ve got to do this work. The white people also have to do this work.”
As Part B of this episode begins, Genius Black and Ali Ali bring their discussion of systems closer to home—right here to Maine. Ali points out that while Black Mainers represent just 1.6% of the state’s total population, 23% of the juveniles who are incarcerated in Maine are Black. They discuss similar cases where Black defendants receive substantially more prison time than white defendants. “Light white sentences [are] also a tool of white supremacy,” Ali says.
To get different results, Ali says, we have to change: to give back what was taken—land and money, specifically—and to defund the police and reallocate that money to schools and communities. “When we talk about taking money from the police forces, we’re not hating them or want them to not be able to take care of their families. That’s not the point,” says Genius Black. “We’re saying we need less police because we do. And what we’re saying is that some of that money that keeps society in a certain way and keeps people in a certain cage—if you can literally pull some of that money away from those systems that are so old and put the money somewhere else, your society will actually be different.”
To put these kinds of changes into action, Ali recommends some specific organizations:
He also recommends getting involved in local politics: talking to people who are in office and finding out what they’re doing about structural racism, learning who they’re relying on for the information they use to inform their work, and being sure that people of color are among their sources.
Ali has started a website, reversesrmaine.org, that highlights people who are doing the work. Donations to the site fund the work of youth activists, who can receive a $50 stipend.
The conversation ends with Ali performing a piece of his poetry called Philanthropy.