Reflecting on the Project: Charles Boyd & Makeba KEEBS Rainey

At the conclusion of the creation of the project, we asked participants to reflect on what the process was like for them. Here are excerpts from their responses.

From Charles

Describe the collaboration process that you and your partner developed. What was the hardest to convey to your collaborator? What was particularly important to you to make sure was included?

The process of communicating with my partner was at times daunting. We had three channels of communication. Each came with its share of challenges. For instance communicating via snail mail took forever but was the only means available that offered some privacy. Both the phone and electronic email systems offered no safeguard for our social capital. Both are very risky forms of communicating ideas, particularly those that might be sensitive. It was often frustrating trying to strike a balance between what was okay to share and what wasn’t through these mediums.

It is very difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t been incarcerated what the actual experience is like and it is damn near impossible to articulate what it is to be serving/fighting a dbi sentence. Sure, I can give you an idea but even looking for words and images to capture the essence of what it is like, is complicated. It was easier for me to expound on some of the issues that surround dbi. For instance the hour glass, we use to illustrate the urgency and dire need for community awareness and engagement in issues revolving around the need to ban the practice of dbi sentences. Another would be the suffocating effect that dbi has on its inhabitants. Instead of painting a flowery image for you, it was important that my partner, “Keebs” and I rendered a disturbing image. If it frustrates, angers, shocks, annoys, agitates or confuses, it has served in part its purpose.

What did you learn from this process? What were you surprised by?

It was really easy to work with Keebs barring the limitations we had to navigate in order to communicate. I learned that our core humanity transcends age, gender identification and/or association, race, class and geography.

What does freedom mean to you?

It is definitely not an abstract concept. The problem with defining freedom is that it is subjective. The complexity evolving around an individualized characterization is that it’s bias and therefore disallows others. Freedom is being able to love without the fear of the repercussions. I just love you and fight for you because I realize that my existence is intertwined with yours and vice-versa. Freedom is to have a stake in the issues that affect you. No means no and if I don’t want your unwarranted advances or your corporations drilling for oil on my property then stay the fk off. If it’s mine, then it’s sacred. Freedom means me as a human being having more rights that a corporation. When the people cry out for justice, freedom and equality and it does not land on a deaf ear… that’s freedom. When the people cry out that’s too much… whether it be misogyny, discrimination, racism, mass incarceration, xenophobia, etc. and it stops, then that’s freedom.

From Makeba

Describe the collaboration process.

Charles and I discussed a lot of different things. We covered a lot of ground, first getting to know each other…getting a feel for each others politics before delving into the subject matter of the LifeLines project. At first, we snail-mailed letters to each other and for a while that was our only form of communication. As the project progressed, as deadlines approached, we both figured we needed to be more accessible. Eventually I signed up for the email service so that we could communicate quicker. Closer to the end of the project, I was put on on Charles’ phone list so I could receive phone calls. For me, all of this was very limiting because we weren’t able to contact each other when necessary. Emails have word-limits and phone calls have time-limits. Snail mail was better for longer, more detailed messages, but they took so long come.

The most important thing for me was to honor the words and vision of Charles Boyd. It was my responsibility to accurately deliver his message in a way that will resonate with viewers.

What was the hardest thing to convey to your partner?

The hardest thing to convey was how I applied his words to my style of art, and that was probably because I was having a difficult time figuring out what the art-making process was on my end. My artwork is mostly digital. I didn’t feel like that medium would do this project justice, so I attempted to create something tactile. That was a bad idea considering the limited timeline and my own neurosis. I probably overcompensated in attempt to communicate the many themes

What did you learn from the process? What were you surprised by?

I’ve never communicated with anyone serving time. I’ve only read the letters my father wrote my mom when he was in prison. The first hand-written letter I received from Charles was written on paper eerily similar in size and texture of my father’s letters, but of course the subject matter was vastly different.

I was not sure about proper etiquette when communicating with someone on the inside or if there is such a thing. I’m still unsure. I tried to treat it as if I were talking to a prospect collaborator rather than just an incarcerated person…and I’m not sure if that seemed insincere or…insensitive considering the circumstance. There were a lot of topics I evaded, a lot of questions I didn’t ask because they felt inappropriate…and maybe also for my own comfort. I often wondered if those questions and their answers even mattered.

I learned a lot about navigating through the extreme restrictions placed on both incarcerated people and the folks they communicate with on the outside. I personally know what it’s like to persevere through hardship; how to make due with what I’m “given”… or not given. It’s very different to overcome these sort of elusive obstacles that society refuses to acknowledge vs overcoming very clear and strictly enforced restrictions. I am in awe of how anyone in prison can effectively be activists; how they can be so committed to social justice by any means. I think that we can all learn a lot about resilience, commitment, and perseverance when there are few to no tools available. I’ve learned that the decision to be committed to social justice is a choice to be a part of humanity; a choice to remain connected; a choice to live. In the Infamous DBI, Charles wrote, “At the end of the day, when taken into consideration, the paths which may have led many to incarceration; such as their environment, upbringing, substance use, disorders, mental health issues, lack of education, peer pressure, brain still developing, etc., the castaways being held hostage in the ‘Belly of the Beast’ are still human beings. Each day they have to decide whether to live, die (merely exist), or to survive the suffocation that is homegrown and synonymous with being held against one’s will.” I learned that there are many levels of existence, but that to live is a choice.

I learned to never refer to an incarcerated person as an “inmate” because it objectifies them and takes away their humanity.

I was most surprised by how excited I was when I received my first letter in the mail and even more surprised when I got my first phone call. I was overjoyed. Ecstatic. It is difficult to look forward to much, to be hopeful for anything in this social/political climate, but I did look forward to hearing from Charles.

Are there any excerpts from your correspondence together that you’d be willing to share with us?

There were several sentences that included with the artwork to give context for the hourglass image.

“What if we could develop some type of image that would spark a conversation about the disparity in which Black people are given dbi sentences compared to Whites.”

“I wonder how White people would feel if the trend of handing out dbi sentences were reversed and that they represented a majority of the dbi population by as large a margin as Black people do them.”

“You must bear in mid that Black people represent less than [14%] of this country’s population. There is no way in the world we commit more crime, but those numbers say something totally contrary.”

What does freedom mean to you?

I equate Black Liberation with freedom. I’m constantly thinking about Black Liberation and what that means. It is important for me visualize and articulate that before I can even try to work towards it. If, as Nina Simone says, “freedom is no fear”, then Black Liberation means the ability to be courageous…the courage to be…to show up fully as your self.

This project was especially meaningful because I include incarcerated individuals in my vision of Black Liberation, I include all Black people who have been pushed away, forcibly taken away, and marginalized.

Through this project, Charles has helped me realize that freedom is not free…it requires action and is something we must continue to work for even after it is attained…it is fleeting, like peace. My ancestors have been vigorously fighting for our liberation for decades. Freedom cannot be idealistic because the experiences we’ve endured to achieve freedom have been less than ideal. In order to visualize freedom, we have to think about what gets in the way of it. We must continue to work towards freedom with a sense of urgency and steadfastness because our legacy depends on it.

Charles Boyd

Charles Boyd has been fighting a Death By Incarceration (DBI) sentence for the past thirty-five years. He is co-founder of the Let’s Circle Up (LCU) Restorative Justice project and the internal coordinator for the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which focuses on community building and conflict resolution. He has been a member of the Graterford Inside-Out Think Tank for fifteen years. He volunteers as a Hospice Caretaker and works in the Alcohol and Other Drugs department as a Certified Peer Supporter. Charles has a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Villanova University. He is an environmentalist who loves music, art, and creating safe spaces where people can discover their personal and collective sense of agency. He is committed to ending the inhumane practices of DBI sentences and mass incarceration in general.

Makeba “KEEBS” Rainey

Makeba “KEEBS” Rainey is a Harlem native inspired by her community and fellow emerging visual and performance artists. She is the founder of Black Capital Coalition (BCC), which promotes both visual and performance artists from Harlem through creative collaborations between artists, businesses, and cultural institutions. BCC directs attention to young Harlem artists by teaming up with other young creatives; videographers, musicians, performing artists, and writers; to merge audiences andincrease their collective fan-base. She currently lives in Philadelphia. Learn more at