The architect of the largest prison building project in the history of the world, the US now holds over 2 million people in cages across the country with over 5 million people on parole or probation. In the 1970s, there were roughly 200,000 people in jails and prisons across the country; this amounts to a 500% growth in fewer than 25 years, which happened through an unprecedented investment and reliance on state security systems in the form of policing, court systems, and prisons. There are now roughly over 7 million people dispossessed from family, work, educational opportunity, and community due to mass imprisonment at a cost of close to 80 billion dollars a year to all of us. And nearly 60% of this population are Black and Brown men, women, and children and almost all working class or working poor. It is a significant population of rightless, stateless persons unseen and unheard by those of us on the outside, existing mainly in the imagination as a dangerous, predatory people and a threat to the social fabric of the US. This investment by the state and the public has negated the future and freedoms of entire neighborhoods and communities across the country, and calls into question the very ideals of democracy that the US champions. For 15 years my students and I have been asking these very questions: Why so many prisons? Why in the US? Why in California? And why is the population that fills prisons disproportionately Black, Brown, and poor? And what does this mean for all of us?
The paradox of a university pursuing community-engaged work is that the proposition already presupposes a hierarchy of difference. For the university to work with “community,” the “community” must be defined as outside, or other; the university cannot at once be the community it proposes to engage.
For the university to see itself as part of a community, however, means that the violences that one may perceive and try to address in this otherized “community”—precarity, incarceration, displacement, etc.—are acknowledged as the same violences that pervade the university. For a university to be partof a community, instead of standing apart, the university must also open itself up to the same agitation and transformation that it engages beyond its walls. If the architectural logic of incarceration, of border separation, is walls, then the architecture of decarceration must at the very least identify places where conceptual and physical walls between the university and its surrounding community become porous.
A reflection on the work of Imagining America, tied to the focus of this issue.
In the fall of 2017, several university faculty members met several times with formerly incarcerated members of the community their institution serves to discuss a book they were all reading together, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. These meetings offered all of us the opportunity to engage Alexander's ideas with folks they do not often interact with, and everyone came away from the meetings with new insights and ideas for social change. In the following spring, some of us met again to talk about what we had learned from one another and from Alexander herself when she came to our community in January. Our work here is a "curated" version of the latter conversation, edited to help explore our insights and discoveries.
The Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) is a performance collective founded by incarcerated men, located in the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. In the words of the group’s founders, “[PPTG] is a transformative theatre community, which utilizes theatre to reconnect incarcerated people to their full humanity.” Since 2009, PPTG has held small, tight-knit workshops for two hours each Friday evening, with the aim of creating a space where imprisoned writers and performers can be witnessed, and where they can initiate a process of personal, cultural, and sociopolitical transformation. At the time of this writing, PPTG comprised eight incarcerated members living in Auburn Correctional: Nate Powell, Demetrius Molina, Adam Roberts, Sheldon “Superb” Johnson, Raymond Van Clief, Mark “AZ” Thompson, Jerome Walker, and Robert “Bam” Lawrence. Additionally, two non-incarcerated volunteers participated in writing the introduction and editing the other sections: Nick Fesette and Bruce Levitt.
This paper examines the impact of criminal justice reforms enacted at the end of the Obama Administration. It discusses the real, often overlooked, needs of people being released from prison after long decades behind bars and the role of formerly incarcerated people in helping with transition from prison. It considers a demonstration project, Project New Opportunity, developed to assist people released under recent federal sentencing reforms. The article points to the tension between the modest reforms introduced in recent years that bring a modicum of relief to incarcerated people yet keeps intact the criminal justice system policies that create and sustain mass incarceration. The study is informed by a survey of people who participated in PNO and a series of video-taped interviews with the project’s deputy director and co-author, who was granted clemency and released after serving 24.5 years in federal prison.
From the manipulation of space to confine, exclude, and discipline to the geographies of inequality fueling the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration is a deeply spatial practice. Community-led projects reveal how critical approaches to mapping can be used to counter dominant narratives about mass incarceration, or what Peluso (1995) terms “counter-mapping.” Reflecting on an ongoing Atlanta-based collaboration between ATLmaps (a community-focused geographic visualization platform), Common Good Atlanta (a college-in-prison higher education program), and Inner-City Muslim Action Network (a community organization), we ask: What kinds of stories can maps tell about the experiences of (post-)incarceration? We highlight three specific “story-projects” to showcase the potential of collaborative mapping to: (1) expose transcarceral practices, (2) educate others about the situated experiences of incarceration and reentry, and (3) engage seemingly disparate communities that shape and are connected through transcarceral experience.
This essay describes the experience of being present at performances in correctional facilities (PCF), with a focus on the PACE program at San Francisco County Jail #5 in San Bruno, CA. PCF are full of possibility and fraught with pitfalls. The experience of attending one of these events can interrupt assumptions about the incarcerated and create powerful feelings of connection; it also risks reinscribing roles created by a penal system built on white supremacy. Our narrative balances one author’s experience as a spectator against commentary provided by two PACE facilitators and one alumni, as well as a second inside performer who has participated in multiple PCF programs. All five authors reflect on the experience of watching, being watched, and what needs to come after. Thinking about our involvement with PCF inevitably leads us to reflect on broader themes including race, mass incarceration, and social justice leadership.
The Carcerality Research Lab (CRL) was created as a space for knowledge production grounded in prison abolition. The faculty coordinators engaged the work of the CRL through Critical Race Theory and abolition pedagogy, and this article demonstrates the transformative power of this pedagogical approach. Student researchers were recruited from Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, a Hispanic Serving Institution located in Los Angeles County, which is greatly affected by incarceration. The article focuses on the experiences of three student researchers and the impact of the CRL. All three students are Chicanas, first-generation college students from immigrant families, and they all have had a loved one incarcerated. Their involvement in the CRL has resulted in the three students making personal changes to live healthier lives, positively changing their relationships with family members because of newly gained knowledge, and engaging practices of knowledge production that further an abolitionist vision.
This essay details and critically analyzes meetings between men serving what they call “death-by-incarceration” (more commonly referred to as “life-without-parole”) sentences in a maximum-security Pennsylvania prison and media production students from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The students are part of a course called Crime, Media and Justice, which is designed for students interested in becoming media makers (journalists, writers, filmmakers, etc.) to scrutinize reductive mass-media narratives of crime, justice, and incarceration. Most of the “inside” participants are members of Right to Redemption (R2R), a group organized and run in prison that calls for the end of what they call “the other death penalty,” life in prison. The essay uses excerpts of audio reflections from “outside” participants and parts of written reflections from “inside” participants to better understand the meetings as part of a “pedagogy of discomfort.” First outlined by scholar Megan Boler in her 1999 book Feeling Power: Emotions and Education, a pedagogy of discomfort calls on educators and students to interrogate harmful binaries, bear witness to how these binaries shape discourse and policy, and act on what they learn.
This essay explores the prison as an archive by focusing on an emerging digital humanities project about the history of prisons. The Washington Prison History Project (WPHP) began with the donation of two decades of records of prisoner activism; it includes an assortment of correspondence, self-published newspapers, photographs, and even a text-adventure computer game that was first designed in prison in the late 1980s and which the authors have recreated. The authors—a professor, a recent alumna, and two librarians—describe the origins and development of the project as a counter-archive of prison. Drawing on artifacts from the project, they argue that this alternate archive provides a means to teach, learn, and interpret the prison from the perspective of incarcerated people and their supporters and loved ones.