Hundreds of Thousands is a 24-hour public demonstration that aims to make visual the suffering and inhumane treatment of incarcerated, mentally ill people and the policies that adversely impact their lives. On August 22, 2020, I will relegate myself to a 6x9 ft cell on the grounds of the McLennan County Jail where my little brother, Steven Waday Walker-Webb, is being wrongfully held in solitary confinement.
Waday suffers from bipolar schizophrenia. On April 22, 2020, Waday was brutally arrested in my family’s front yard while having a bipolar-schizophrenic episode. When my family called the local mental health emergency response team, Mental Health Mental Retardation (MHMR), the police were sent. They took my brother to jail instead of a mental health hospital. He was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, not for committing a crime but simply for being mentally ill. Waday is currently in solitary, and has been there for over 100 days. This demonstration brings awareness to the injustice that Waday is facing, and simultaneously points to the national failure of America’s mental health care system and its use of incarceration and solitary confinement as treatment for mental illness. As of 2019, approximately 34% of the U.S. prison population suffers from mental illness. The vast majority of these patients are placed in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is especially inhumane and brutal for people suffering with mental illness. Studies show it exacerbates their condition. Mental illness is not a crime, and the hundreds of thousands who are incarcerated, or dead, as a result of their mental illness are not criminals. My little brother is not a criminal. Tanisha Anderson was not a criminal. Deborah Danner was not a criminal. Jason Harrison was not a criminal. Shali Tilson was not a criminal. They are all tragic examples of how our country has criminalized mental illness.
Hundreds of Thousands takes its title from a letter that James Baldwin wrote to his nephew found in his seminal text, The Fire Next Time:
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” - James Baldwin
Baldwin wrote those words to his nephew 57 years ago. They shouldn’t be relevant today. But the metronome of systemic violence has desensitized us as a nation, so much so that we stop feeling the human cost of injustice. When you love someone that is incarcerated, however, it is impossible not to feel the absence of that human being. There's a part of you that's also missing, locked away with them. You feel an unshakeable sense of helplessness in your body as they must feel in theirs. I have felt the pain of it for the past 100 days that my brother has been left to suffer in solitary. I keep trying to escape that rage, that bottomless woe... but I can’t. It is something that I sit with no matter what I do. The truth is that I am going to sit in self-imposed solitary confinement because I don’t know what else to do. I have tried everything to protect my little brother, and I have failed. I have failed to save him from a mental health system that has criminalized him, failed to shield him from a for-profit prison system that sees his mental health as a vulnerability to exploit. But I have not failed alone. We all have. We have failed hundreds of thousands of mentally ill loved ones. So many have been murdered while seeking help, so many wait in solitary confinement in a lonely delirium waiting for us to care, to act, to be human again. And that is the hope of this work: that the inhumanity of my brother's situation will speak to the humanity in you. This performance protest is not intended to stand alone as a work of art, and yet it is asking you to consume it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge the existence of the injustice and inhumane conditions that it’s attempting to symbolize. The soul of the demonstration is not artistic; rather, it is to allow people to bear witness in real-time to an injustice currently unfolding. Right now, my brother waits alone in a cell for 24-hours a day with no access to sunlight, no access to human contact. He is suffering—because he has been criminalized for his mental illness. I’m not asking you to peer into his suffering from an intellectual distance, but to step into his shoes and suffer with him as all of those who know him and love him must suffer with him as we wait for a better mental health care system, a better justice system, a better country…. In the 1960s, Baldwin shared a personal letter written to his nephew to awaken social consciousness and illuminate the systemic evils that plagued Black Americans then. Today, in 2020, I share a letter to my brother with you in the hopes that you’ll not only get a picture of his suffering but that you will also get a sense of what has been taken from him, and what is being taken from us—all of us—in his absence.
Today is your birthday. There are so many things I wish we were celebrating. So many memories we could be making. Moments I imagine of laughter, or cake, or of Stevie Wonder’s birthday song. But in this moment, those simple taken for granted things are not possible. So what can I give you? If I could gift you anything it would be… Freedom. Your literal liberation from the 6x9 ft cage that you are being unlawfully held in. I would gift you access to due process, and acknowledgement and application of your human rights. I would gift you an efficacious health care system. A system that doesn’t abandon its most vulnerable patients, damning and dooming them to inhumane incarceration as a solution and treatment to their mental illness. But sadly, these gifts also feel inconceivable, like science fiction; an impossible fantasy. Compassionate care and morally sound execution of justice has never been a reality for black people or for poor people of any color. Daily I am mystified by the scale and enormity of the injustice enacted on poor people with mental health issues. I live in a state of constant outrage at the, barely existent, mental health care system and its insidious relationship with the prison industrial complex. I wish I could say that I’m surprised that our country is guilty. Guilty from profiteering from the abuse of its most vulnerable citizens, but I’m not.
Even though you are caged in a small, airless, lonely cell, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are so many of us praying for you, fighting for you, missing you. While we work to materialize the gifts and dreams that are the subject of this letter, I want you to know that it is our country that is guilty and not you. I want you to know that being black is not a crime, being poor is not a crime, being mentally ill is not a crime. I want to whisper into the madness and loneliness curated and designed for you by our failed justice system, and affirm that you, in fact, are the innocent one, and that our country is the culprit.