Five Mualimm-ak (Myesha Evon Gardner)

Since Incarcerated Nation Network founder and executive director Five Mualimm-ak returned home from prison in 2012, his mission has been to advocate for formerly and currently incarcerated people and change the system he came to know so intimately. He was held in solitary confinement for five of the 12 years he was inside, and in the near decade that he has been home, he’s become one of New York’s most visible advocates for ending the practice.

This year, Mualimm-ak has been named a recipient of New York City’s David Prize, which celebrates people who are creating “a better, brighter New York City” through innovative ideas. The Prize specifically recognizes his juvenile justice work and the substantive impact that the Incarcerated Nation Network’s Youth Anti-Prison Project has already had on the over 700 youth who have participated in it. As one of the five David Prize winners, Mualimm-ak will receive $200,000—no strings attached—to deepen and expand the Youth Anti-Prison Project. 

As part of the Network, the Youth Anti-Prison Project provides mentorship, employment, a 16-week trauma-informed care training, housing, and educational resources—including a 23-unit curriculum provided through the New School and CUNY, which covers housing, civics, citizenship, banking education, and voter rights—to youth in New York who are serving multi-year community supervision sentences. As an obscured community within an already deeply neglected population, young people who are recently released from prison are not often given the vital services they need to both successfully complete probation and construct stable futures. The project offers a suite of options, or academies, that its members can use to fill in the gaps that the city and broader society often creates for them. 

Mualimm-ak has long been vocal about issues of voter disenfranchisement, housing access for the formerly incarcerated, and how the system ruptures family ties. He sat down with Prism to discuss the Prize, the unique challenges facing system-impacted young people, and how the Youth Anti-Prison Project is trying to transform lives.

Tamar Sarai Davis: To begin, congratulations on winning the David Prize! How have you felt since learning about this news? 

Five Mualimm-ak: It’s amazing. When I first heard about the David Prize, I was like, I don’t believe this because no one is investing in people; people invest in outcomes and what they feel like they can get from you. I’d never seen a heartfelt system of philanthropists that was so invested in New York that they wanted to invest in New Yorkers. The David Prize is an amazing thing and I just hope that philanthropy tends to move into that realm more often because supporting the people that make the change happen is vital. 

I think of all of the personal experience that led me to this and in the 10 years of working with youth, where I wasn’t able to do anything for them but was just trying to help. I just got so frustrated and was just gonna do it all even if I have to do it out of my pocket and struggle while I’m doing it. What the David Prize did was say, “We recognize that, but you shouldn’t have to struggle to do that, so here you go.”

Davis: People continue to overlook youth as a community and don’t always think about them in discussions about mass incarceration, but we know they’re a significant population of those policed, imprisoned, and surveilled. Can you share some of the unique set of issues that young people impacted by the criminal legal system face?

Mualimm-ak: When we say “justice impacted” young people, I want you to think of a very large population of youth, actually in the millions who are serving an adjudicated sentence. In other words, they went to court for a charge like public urination or maybe underage drinking or experimenting or doing things that youth do. Those are often looked at as crimes and we spend about $8 billion incarcerating kids for them.

Since 2013 over 30,000 kids have been arrested under the age of 10 and the majority of those are in New York’s 15th district, the poorest district in the United States of America. In New York, young adults are swept into this system to such an extreme level that they don’t even have that many probation officers to be able to oversee these youth. So the community must step in. 

New York is also a conundrum of laws that don’t make sense. If you’re 18 you could legally be thrown out and with the pandemic forcing people to stay in the house together, [the number of teens thrown out of their homes] has increased over the last year. You also have youth who may have come out [as] LGBTQ [and are now] homeless after not being understood and being evicted from their homes. It’s also legal to not rent out a place until the renter is at least 21 years old, so you’re kicked out at 18 but you can’t sign a lease until you’re 21. At 16, if you’re in the correctional system, you can be detained at a juvenile facility where your parents don’t even know, [while] at 17, if you’re in the criminal justice system, you’re housed with adults, sentenced as an adult, and treated like an adult—yet when you come home, you’re still technically too young to even have your own apartment and so you’re homeless. 

Community supervision means that you’re serving your time within the city limits, either by doing community service hours or being employed, and you have to be housed. Most kids come to the Youth Anti-Prison Project with none of that, but every month, for five years [they] have to ask themselves why they are not stable, meanwhile the city gives them no means to be stable. So the Youth Anti-Prison Project is creating a number of academies, which are connected to businesses to give [youth] a career path and start them off on the right angle of being able, taxed citizens and at least giving them that fighting chance. The project [provides] wraparound legal resources, job training, permits, continued education, all while we’re housing them as well, because they actually need everything—which is sad to say.

Davis: What are some of the unique features and components of the Youth Anti-Prison Project that helps meet those needs?

Mualimm-ak: The Youth Anti Prison Project houses, trains, and supports justice impacted young adults. We have continued education, licenses, job permits, educational programs, and referrals to colleges. [Access to] all of that depends on if you have somebody in your life who’s going to take care of you or if you have a place that you can stay that you don’t have to pay for, so those are the type of supportive resources that we put together.

The academies offered through the Project are the Young Adult Perspective Project, The Girls Project, Mikey Likes It Academy, and the Health Station Academy. These different academies are like different choices—think of it as Hogwarts. We’re getting the kids into this school system where every teacher is a civil rights leader or legend. Everyone is a very well-known person who’s coming together to support these young adults and [build] their advocacy, their organizing skills. None of the [participating youth] have gone through our program and just left, they’re still attached, they still come back, they facilitate programs. 

The people that I’m empowering, the people that I’m educating, are gonna be the teachers of your children’s children. We developed a voter education class, because none of them understand how it works and what it really does. I’m lucky to have people like [Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor and her system iCivics in our corner to help teach the children civics. [The bank] Santander comes in and teaches our kids a banking class [and] opens up and creates taxpaying stable citizens when the city was just making tax money off of other citizens for incarcerating them.

Davis: I know you’ve been working in this space for years and have been advocating around different issues related to the criminal legal system, but were there any specific, new obstacles that you came across when getting this particular project off the ground?

Mualimm-ak: That list is very long but I can start at the top. As advocates, we often have to do two different types of work: organizational work, which people get funding for, or movement work, where the city asks you to explain the problem and you take your resources to gather a report or do a study to show [the city] the problem and give them the opportunity to change [it] with possible solutions. They approve it and then they open it up to anybody to apply to do [that work]. Now, to get that application or get that funding, you have to have a long-standing record of working with the city, so new ideas can be difficult to get off the ground in New York. 

[Another] obstacle is [related to] one of our academies called Mikey Likes It Academy which is attached to Mikey Likes It Ice Cream. I’d rather youth be making ice cream and learning how to work in the food industry than being in jail for doing something that kids do. But our ice cream truck is different—it’s a social justice truck, so you can sign up for [summer youth employment], you can get a job, you can sign up for health care, and you can register to vote. So if [YAPP members] are on probation for five years, they work with Mikey, get their vendor’s license, and we’re supporting them with housing. But New York City [currently] has a freeze on vendor permits and when I spoke to the mayor, he told me that it’s a hard bureaucracy to pierce. That affects our program because we can’t get a mobile vendor’s permit.

We [also] keep forgetting about our young people. Yesterday, I was talking to my city councilman, and this is the eighth time I’ve met him to speak to him about the project, but every time I approach him and speak to him, he says, “Oh, I forgot about this.” 

The obstacles are many, but I would say that they’re all solvable when the city is committed to creating those resources.  

Davis: Earlier you discussed the importance of young people having a safe space to land and reside during the time they are under supervision. I know that you recently launched a pilot safe space hub and intend to create two additional homes for young people in the Youth Anti Prison Project. Can you share a bit about this pilot hub as well as your hopes for these new additional homes?

Mualimm-ak: We want to have a safe space that’s not too overcrowded or institutionalized. We want you to say that this is your home. One of the funny things is that, [the YAPP participants] keep forgetting their keys because they’re not used to having keys—they’re used to going through some type of permission to get into the house or wherever they’re staying. 

The program itself is in the South Bronx because we are starting in the poorest district in the United States, where homeless kids are just right there on the street, sleeping on the benches. It’s very difficult. We haven’t gotten the [necessary] support from the city, even though I’ve met with the mayor and the commissioners. They’re promising to look at it even though they know the problem exists so I’m not too hopeful—I’m more into inspiring the community to step up and have independent landowners say, “Five, you can manage this property,” and give us the opportunity to pay rent through the city’s voucher system. I’ve also created a print shop to make up the difference in funding.

What I hope is to show private developers that you can actually do youth housing, you can do programmatic and supportive housing, and make your rent. The city spends more money giving developers space than low income housing. When I came home from prison, I spent three years in the shelter system, sleeping in the streets with my children sometimes to make this work happen. You have to disguise yourself in order to be the expert in the room, but I’m the expert because I’m going through it. I’m the expert because we’ve lived through it. 

Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but often don’t have the resources to actually [make] change. I’ve seen the category of what [people think] young people deserve narrow every day, and so what I’m creating is a new unique system of supportive housing for our most marginalized youth to fill the gaps of what we allow to happen. 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.