Love in the Era of Mass Incarceration

by Piper Anderson and Marlon Peterson Over a period of three months, Piper Anderson and Marlon Peterson, two friends, wrote to each other...

by Piper Anderson and Marlon Peterson

Over a period of three months, Piper Anderson and Marlon Peterson, two friends, wrote to each other about love. Piper is a writer, educator, juvenile justice advocate, and cultural worker who grew up in a family that struggled with drug addiction and domestic violence. Marlon is a writer, social justice advocate, and community justice strategist who spent the past 15 years of his life in prison and parole. 

The process of writing these letters included moments of emotional relief, personal exploration, and interpersonal strife. They didn’t realize how much they needed to pen these words until they started to write and reflect on the ways that prisons, law enforcement, and the war on drugs had created these abrupt fissures in their relationships and beliefs about love. Writing these letters became a way to unpack and reveal what they thought they had lost. It revealed wounds that tested the strength and trust of our friendship. They made mistakes. They wrote these letters while in protest in the streets of New York City. They wrote while at home over holidays seeing anew the ways loved ones never recovered from the ‘war on drugs’. They wrote as Marlon was released from state supervision and Piper prepared to quit my job and start my own business. 

The more they wrote, the more they realized that this wasn’t just about just them, but a conversation about love within their community was what was most needed right now. They understood that in telling their own stories, they could open up a larger dialogue about the ways we choose to love in an era deeply marred by the mass criminalization of Black people.


Dear Piper,

The comfortable loneliness of being so infatuated with my own pain is my mask. I am afraid to give up that mask, probably because it's the pain that keeps me safe away from a vulnerability that I prefer to keep secret in the words I pen and in the thoughts I think. I prefer to live by writing because it's the one place where living is something I can master. A place where I am the God of my present. A place where I can control emotions… my emotions. A place where I can breathe.

We incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Through deportations we have moved more people from one part of the world to other parts of the world since the transatlantic slave trade. We gun down Black and Brown people. We surveil poor inner city communities in ways akin to parts of war torn Iraq and Syria. We harass each other in the streets. Our juvenile justice system treats our children like dispensable adults… We live in carceral times.

We are killed and suffocated by our ostensible protectors—in the streets, in our apartments, in our dorm rooms, in bedrooms. We live in times of and related to confinement. We live in carceral times. Piper, we live in an era where love is a radical act.

Yet, we fight against oppression. We organize. We resist. We teach. We advocate. We activate. We struggle. We take to the streets. We protest, with a ‘turn up swag’. We visit our comrades and daughters in prisons. We do it because all we have to lose is our chains. We live in carceral times.

In the five years since my release from prison, I have struggled to let love happen. Having a parole officer telling me to be home by 9:00pm doesn’t help either. I hesitate to take vacations because I hate having to ask for permission from my P.O. to leave the state. It’s so infantilizing. To think, that there are about 7 million people in this country living under some form of correctional supervision, just like me. How does love survive that? How do I manage a relationship that has rules that are not agreed upon by me or my partner? If I were a parent, how would I explain to my children that Daddy also has a curfew, or that Daddy cannot take you to to Great Adventures, just 70 miles south of Brooklyn, until he gets permission from his P.O.? If I were the poppa of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, how do I live beyond my hurt, my confinement to misery? How?

Piper, in this era of mass incarcerations, where do we find the fortitude, the gumption, the time to love?


Dear Marlon,

I often think about what it means to choose my own survival over love. Or that for so long I believed that was my only choice: survival or love. In the era of mass incarceration the state stands stolidly in the middle of our relationships with each other. Parents forced to accept the guidance of the state to tell them when and where they can see their children or what monetary value their young lives have. Police walk into a home and determine who is victim and who is perpetrator. The state demands that without its certification, your partnership is not valid and therefore you cannot seek housing together. The state decides if your home is safe enough for your own children to live there with you. Since slavery Black people have had to negotiate their relationships under the objectifying eye of state agents. We know that the survival of our families, sometimes even despite the harm we inflict on each other, depends on our ability to keep police, social workers, and the court system out of our homes.

As a child, I saw police enter my home to serve arrest warrants and respond to domestic violence calls, and one-by-one, take my mother and father away. I remember the panic I felt as I watched my mother put in handcuffs the first time: me crying, grabbing for her, begging them not to take her away. I remember how calmly she went into custody, telling me to calm down, and my father holding me back as they escorted her out the front door. I remember being confused by their response. Was this just the way it was? Could police just come into our house and take one of us away? Keeping the police out of our home meant keeping shameful secrets; meant never asking for help. It meant the difference between managing cycles of pain and destruction or risk the harsher “help” of a system that did not understand our family and certainly didn’t see my parents’ struggles with drug addiction as the sign of an urgent need for rehabilitation and supportive care.

So I think about what that means for my own ability to be open to love. All of the violence I’ve experienced has been informative in the ways I struggle to unlearn. It’s taught me to pack light and be ready to run. It’s the reason I’ve never had a lasting partnership and why I don’t have children. You see, Marlon, while I believe that through our protesting, organizing, affirming that Black Lives Matter, that we will win the fight to end police violence, I still worry that I may never know what it is to be both safe and in love in my own home. Can I really expect that the neglect and violence inflicted on us by a criminal punishment system will stop finding its way into my relationships?

These oppressive structures are so adaptable: the target always remains the same—Black people—yet the tactics are ever changing. Mass incarceration is simply the current mechanism of capture for white supremacy. What’s worst is that the system has shamed us into believing that we brought this on ourselves. We in turn punish ourselves and each other for having fallen victim. Can we learn to love each other in ways that do not demand that one of us is always on our knees? Can we radically reclaim our love for ourselves and each other in a country whose endless brutality has left us in a constant state of traumatic recovery?


Dear Piper,

What do you suppose we are adapting to? Is our adjustment to these oppressive structures a mal-adaptation that we understand as normal? I guess the more lucid question is: What is normal? Piper, to this day, I write and wonder and wish that my older brother and I had more of a brotherly relationship. The older I get, the more I wonder if his youthful disdain or continual ability to make me irrelevant in his life has more to do with the fact that he felt abandoned by my parents as a child.

Back in the early 1970’s, U.S. immigration policies dictated how we were allowed to love: immigration policies that spoon-fed hospitality to predominantly Black countries, like Trinidad, and rolled out red carpets for immigrants from white countries like England, Italy, France, and even Cold War foes like Germany.

My parents both immigrated to Brooklyn from Trinidad in 1967, in hopes for the American dream that was sold to them as teens. While my mom worked cleaning the homes of white and Jewish folks—some who were abusive and dismissive to her—my pops worked low-level blue-collar jobs. When my brother was born in 1971, they were too poor to afford him and my sister who was born three years earlier, so they sent him to live with my mother’s family for the first five years of his life. Racial and economically biased immigration policies dictated that they could not travel to Trinidad and return to the U.S. where they were in the slow process of building a life for themselves and their young family. Low wages prevented them from paying for a plane ticket for their first-born son to visit them back in Brooklyn, so my brother grew up calling his grandparents “mommy” and “daddy,” and he saw his real parents as strangers with the same last name. His only connection to his New York family was our older sister who would visit him in Trinidad during the summer with a ticket paid for by my family pooling money together.

When he finally “met” his parents five years later, he brought an animosity for their perceived abandonment of him. He was too young to understand that immigration law and Keynesian economics determined the terms of engagement of his parents’ love for him. He was too young to disassociate policies that marginalized and criminalized his parents as fugitives of deportation from their sacrifice to survive and create a better life for their family.

Several years later in 1979, when I was born, he was still too young to understand the better life my parents had then created was not because they loved me more, but because of the prior sacrifices they made. He was too young to glean that our “better life” still meant that five of us lived in a one bedroom apartment, and that our father was not able to attend his own father’s funeral because visiting Trinidad would mean permanent restriction from entering back into the U.S. Permanent restriction from his family is what he was not willing to sacrifice “again” because of his blackness that was marginally viewed by U.S. immigration law.

As a boy and teenager that sought big brothers in the streets, I was too young to understand that my brother’s disdain for me was a direct result of government policy that was drafted in times when Alabama Governor George Wallace proclaimed, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” My brother’s dislike for me was his maladaptive response to racially biased immigration policies that communicated to my parents that love for their children could only be expressed within the carceral limitations of state policy—state policy that literally incarcerated me for 15 years of my life. State policy that defined the terms of my love for others and the terms of their love for me from 19 years old to 35 years old.

Despite all of that, Piper, I do believe that we can radically reclaim our love for ourselves and each other in this country that has never given us the freedom to do so. The darkness must not cloud our ability to see and accept the everyday expressions of revolutionary love.

Dear Marlon,

We each carry the weight of the political histories that have had disruptive consequences for our families. Nobody is prepared to carry that kind of burden, certainly not children. Yet understanding the shape and weight of it becomes urgently important to knowing who we are and how we must fight. So how do we get free, Marlon? How do we reclaim love? Because I’m tired of carrying this weight.

I know that people choose love everyday. I see it all around me. In spite of the ridiculous, insurmountable odds, people choose love. People turn their tragedies, losses, and failures that feel so shameful they leave you in total paralysis, into hope and healing: they get up again, they forgive, they trust again, they stand up and are accountable, they repair the damage done, they choose love because really that’s all we got. It’s a tool for (re)building community and movements. Love is how we remember who we really are and that we deserve so much better than what these racist systems keep handing us under the illusory guise of justice.


Dear Piper,

Our love for justice is our love. I believe we need to be infatuated with justice to experience the liberatory love that mass incarcerations extol. We need to be so engrossed with justice that our mommas, poppas, daughters, sons, lovers, and friends become wholly resistant to the steady bombardments of systemic incarcerations. I believe we can do this because it has been done. I believe we can do this because it has to be done. I believe we can do this because love is freedom, and justice is love.


Dear Marlon,

I hear you; it has been done. It’s being done everyday in our communities. Yet, so many of us still don’t make it. When I was home visiting my parents over the Thanksgiving holiday I could see the ways that surviving for more than 30 years in the same cycle of disease, trauma, and addiction has impacted each of us sitting around the dinner table and even more so for those that can’t even make it to dinner anymore. In the criminal justice lexicon we talk generally about collateral consequences as if they are distant or objective but I sit at the table with those consequences every Christmas. Way too many of us don’t make it. But maybe if we started talking about the ways that we do survive—the ways we recover, heal, and learn to love each other—maybe then we can discover those practices that restore relationship and restore our faith in love. We have to talk about it even when it’s hard. We can’t stop talking about it and working at it even when we hurt each other. In fact, especially when we hurt each other. James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is one of my favorite novels. The love between Fonny, locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and his pregnant fiancĂ©e, Tish, is in many ways the kind of love we need right now. Like Fonny, we have to tell each other, “Don’t think that I don’t know you love me.” We have to ask each other, “You believe we going to make it?” And our answer always has to be yes. Because really that’s all we got, right? Our faith in love, our faith in each other.

Photo: Shutterstock

MASS Love was created by Piper Anderson and Marlon Peterson in response to the need for a critical dialogue on love, family, and community in a carceral state. We've declared February MASS Love month and will be sharing stories and experiences from many diverse voices talking about love as a radical act in the era of mass incarceration. Learn more about the MASS Love project at

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