Skip to content

Kevin Malone

After receiving a life sentence and serving 22 years in prison, Kevin Malone is now an educator, a community organizer, and an anti-gun violence activist.

“When you spend so much time in prison, you become accustomed to institutionalization, and you lose parts of yourself.” — Kevin Malone

When Kevin Malone arrived at Stateville Correctional Center at the age of 19, he was taken aback by the number of familiar faces. He realized many of those who were incarcerated came from his neighborhood and neighboring communities. After more than two decades in prison, Kevin is now back home and using his role as an educator and community activist to help break the cycle of poverty and imprisonment. He believes that creating better conditions for people can bring about positive change in every community. “People are not born evil; they are often the products of unfair and unfortunate social circumstances,” Kevin says.

 

“Learning was the Main Thing that Helped Me Do My Time Without Losing Too Much of Myself”

Kevin grew up on the West Side of Chicago with his mother and stepfather, a man he describes as a “great guy who was good to him.” In spite of his stable home environment, Kevin fell victim to his surroundings. “Chicago was extremely violent; there were drugs everywhere. There were gangs everywhere, and it was not easy not to be affiliated when everybody was,” he explains, adding that peer pressure played a significant role in his decision making. Looking back, Kevin realized how much he was influenced by his community’s norms and practices; he understands why in his early years, dealing drugs seemed as if it was his only option. “When your friends, your cousin, your uncle, and many others are selling drugs, it is hard not to fall victim to it too,” he remarks. He dropped out of school and started selling more drugs in order to increase his earnings. 

Kevin’s first interaction with the criminal legal system was at the age of 14, when he went to jail for selling drugs. A few years later, when he was 17, prosecutors charged Kevin and another teenager with double homicide. This time, he did not come home; he stayed in an overcrowded holding cell in the basement of the police station, a tactic he equates to, in retrospect, a form of torture. “They would take you to the (holding cell); you would be down there maybe 14 hours on a cold steel bench, and then they would drag you, question you another six to seven hours, put you down there, and it just became a repeated cycle until you either told them what they wanted to know or somehow they had to let you go,” he remembers.

Charged as adults, Kevin and his co-defendant both received life without parole sentences, one of the only options available at that time for children facing double-murder charges. Kevin still remembers the judge’s words as he read the verdict. “Legislators do not allow me to give you anything but natural life or the death penalty,” the judge told them. So, at the age of 19, Kevin started serving his natural life sentence at Stateville Correctional Center, before being transferred to Menard Correctional Center. Upon arriving at Menard, the largest prison in Illinois, Kevin recalls being astonished and terrified, even though he didn’t want to show it. “The cell houses went all the way up. It was endless,” he remembers. 

Endless walls are not Kevin’s only memories from prison. In fact, when asked about his time behind bars, he responds thoughtfully, “my incarceration experience was memorable. I learned a lot in prison, a lot of different things that I don’t think I would have learned if I were free.” It’s not that he appreciated the confinement, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and harsh conditions, but he believes he may not have had the opportunity to grow and learn had he remained in the streets. “Learning! That’s what helped me through everything,” he asserts. 

Presented with limited educational opportunities at Menard due to his life sentence, Kevin’s pursuit of learning didn’t come easy. Yet realizing by dropping out of school in 10th grade that he “had no education,” Kevin was determined to use his sentence to remain focused and become a better person. “Learning was the main thing that helped me do my time without losing too much of myself.” He continues, “I needed to take something back, but I could not get time [served] back. The only thing I could take back was education.” 

To make up for lost time, Kevin became an avid reader. Although he had no chance of earning a high school diploma while serving at Menard, he continually pushed himself toward a GED certificate, eventually completing the requirements and receiving the degree after returning to the Cook County Jail for his post-Miller resentencing. Moreover, after arriving at Western Illinois Correctional Center to serve the rest of his reduced sentence, he took a variety of college classes, including law, finance, computer science, and religion. 

Kevin’s thirst for knowledge also led him to a newfound passion: chess. In an environment where isolation is the norm, Kevin and other incarcerated people found innovative ways to play from their cells. “We played chess all day. You mark the board 64 squares, then he marks his and he can be all the way upstairs and you can yell, ‘39 to 36,’ and he’ll move it for you on his board and he’d yell, ‘23 to 12, Check!’ And you’d yell back, ‘Ah I didn’t even see that!’ You know, and we played like that to pass time. And we did this every day.” Not only does Kevin continue to cherish these moments, he also keeps nurturing his passion. 

 

Children make uninformed decisions that often have long-lasting consequences

For Kevin, incarceration also proved to be a time for introspection and growth. He acknowledges that at the beginning, he did not fully apprehend the meaning of his sentence. In fact, it took him several years to understand that he had been condemned to die in prison. “At 17, I could not understand the seriousness of my sentence. After a few years and becoming older, I realized that I was to spend the rest of my life in prison,” he reveals. This awareness came to Kevin after years of reflection and time spent pondering his struggles and past mistakes, overcoming the guilt and regret that were often his only companions. “When you are alone in your cell, you have all those regrets; you always say, ‘I could have, I should have,’” he explains. 

Kevin is cognizant of the striking contrast between his ignorance and inability to make informed decisions as a child and his level of maturity now. “My mind is more developed. I don’t think the same. I’m not the same person; I’m an adult,” he states confidently. As his brain matured during his incarceration, he acquired more cognitive control to avoid making the same mistakes. Cultivating patience, self-discipline, and focus enabled him to avoid reckless and confrontational behavior in prison, where mistakes are often penalized. 

Considering this contrast, Kevin believes his sentence of life without parole for mistakes he made as a child was too heavy a punishment. As the days, weeks, months, and years in prison passed by with no release date, he further realized the extreme nature of his sentence. The perspective of being a ‘lifer’ became drearier each time he lost an appeal and after the governor denied his clemency petition, he felt as though a dark cloud would be hovering over him forever. “There was no out date! I was so young when I got incarcerated that I became accustomed to being in prison,” Kevin says.

Despite the gloomy picture of dying behind prison walls and few prospects for success and happiness, Kevin remained focused on life after incarceration and never lost hope. “Even without an out date, I carried myself as if I had an out date,” he declares. He started studying for his Commercial Driver’s License and preparing for a possible reentry into the society, even though this option seems like a mere illusion at first. For him, “it was about ‘speaking’ (his) freedom into existence.”

Kevin’s positive attitude towards life also benefited from the indefectible support of his family. He fondly recalls his mother and grandmother’s words of encouragement and assistance. “Despite everything, I was still their child, so they visited and took care of me,” he says. In addition to both of these women, several cousins provided him with the emotional and financial aid he needed to survive in prison. Throughout the years, the unconditional love of this big family sustained his faith and hope for a future release. 

Even with the financial support Kevin received, he still did not have enough resources to hire a good appeal lawyer and the lack of legal assistance became a major obstacle in his quest for freedom. Without a lawyer, he personally filed all his post-conviction petitions, a fact that still fills him with pride. “I was not a prison attorney like some of the incarcerated people, but I knew and understood my case,” Kevin explains. 

With Miller v. Alabama’s decision in 2012, Kevin’s hope for release became a reality, though he was quite doubtful at the time. “It was unreal. I knew the law had changed, but I just needed to see things happen, I needed to see myself moving towards the door,” he says. He filed another petition that was successful: he was resentenced and subsequently released after more than two decades in prison. 

 

Social Reintegration is a Grueling Process After a Lengthy Incarceration

When Kevin walked out prison doors in 2019, he felt nothing but pure joy. It was an exhilarating moment. But no matter how prepared he thought he was, changes in society still shocked him. For instance, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, just a few months after his release, Kevin went to a restaurant and was surprised when a server told him they did not accept cash because of health hazards. “I thought there was some kind of legislation that supported that decision,” he says with a chuckle. 

Memorable experiences aside, perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that Kevin’s reentry journey has been marred by challenges that he mostly attributes to his background. One of his major difficulties has been obtaining a job and remaining employed. He can easily rattle off phrases he has heard countless times: “There is no more vacancy,” “We have to let you go,” and “You need more experience.” 

“How am I going to gain experience if no one is hiring me?” he asks with frustration. “It is true that I was convicted for a double homicide, but I’m clearly trying to do better with my life; I just need someone to give me a chance.” In addition, as a Black man, Kevin has also felt the heavy weight of racial profiling, especially during routine traffic stops. For him, these episodes have been “extreme learning experiences,” that have taught him a lot about the complex ramifications of Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR). Yet Kevin continues to refuse to give up. Following his release, he went back to school to study solar energy and recently completed a 548 Energy Solutions program with the National Center for Construction Education and Research, and the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certifications, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10 and 30 certifications. He is currently looking for a job and hopes to find a company that will finally give him the second chance he is longing for.

 

Kevin at the 548 Solar Institution

 

Serving the Community

While awaiting a job opportunity, Kevin is deeply engaged with community service and activism, working with Black Men United, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes resources to rebuild Black communities. “We go to communities and speak to the people who are responsible for violence, in particular gun violence. We know them and we understand them because we have been there, so we try to talk to them about education, discipline, peace, as well as the risk of being locked up for years,” Kevin says. For him, helping restore pride to these communities, including his own, is a source of joy.

Kevin has also found strength and joy with his family, especially his fiancee, his son, and stepdaughter. He is passing on to them the love and support he received from his mother and grandmother, who unfortunately passed away not too long after his release. “It was extremely painful, because those are the women that meant and continue to mean the most to me,” Kevin asserts. Despite the pain, he is happy to watch his kids grow and build beautiful memories with them.

Having experienced the challenges and pains of poverty and incarceration, Kevin is determined to help his community and other Black communities thrive. He is fully aware, however, that the success of such a big project does not depend on a single individual but is contingent upon collective initiatives. “We need more groups active in our communities to restore peace and achieve positive results,” he concludes.