Date August 24, 2022
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To advance research on incarceration, Brown acquires personal papers of prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal

The prison records, correspondence and artwork of Abu-Jamal, and related materials from advocate Johanna Fernández, will anchor a collection at the John Hay Library focused on first-person accounts of incarceration.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The John Hay Library, home to Brown University’s special collections, in partnership with Brown’s Pembroke Center, has acquired a vast set of records, writings and artwork from political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. A journalist who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1982, Abu-Jamal’s incarceration and sentencing have stirred fierce national debates about racial injustice and the ethics of the death penalty.

The library has also obtained related personal papers from Johanna Fernández — a Brown Class of 1993 graduate and esteemed historian of social movements and 20th century American history — who has been a longtime advocate for Abu-Jamal and has for decades maintained his innocence. 

Questions about Abu-Jamal’s guilt have prompted deep legal examination and fueled international discussion since the 1980s, and the acquisition of his papers is part of a broader initiative to advance research on incarceration. Curated by Mary Murphy, the Nancy L. Buc ’65 Pembroke Center archivist, the Abu-Jamal papers will serve as anchors for a new strategic collecting focus at the John Hay Library: Voices of Mass Incarceration.

“The carceral system touches millions of Americans’ lives, yet the historical archive has a scarcity of stories of incarcerated people,” said Amanda E. Strauss, director of the John Hay Library. “This Voices of Mass Incarceration collecting focus aims to provide researchers with unprecedented access to the first-person accounts they need to understand the experiences of people who have spent time in prisons and jails, enriching our collective understanding of how the expanding carceral system has transformed American society.” 

The new scholarly focus is a partnership between several academic centers at Brown that have drawn connections between mass incarceration and systemic inequalities in the U.S. — including the library, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Pembroke Center, a hub of feminist research at Brown. The Abu-Jamal papers at the John Hay Library will join a growing archive of scholarly materials on incarceration amassed by the CSREA. The acquisition, along with the Fernández papers, will be made available for use in 2023 following a thorough cataloguing process.

With more than 60 boxes of papers spanning 1981 to 2020, the collection documents Abu-Jamal’s trial, prison and death row experiences; his reflections on civil rights and freedom; the challenges he has experienced as an activist in a maximum-security prison; and the public’s reaction to his case, as articulated in newspaper articles, films, cards and letters. Among the materials is a thick, heavy pair of glasses that Abu-Jamal famously wore for many years; journals, which feature his personal thoughts, poems and legal arguments; and part of a painstakingly detailed visitor list Abu-Jamal is still required to maintain to meet with people from the outside world.

Strauss noted that since the 1970s, the U.S. prison population has grown more than 500% to 2 million people — more than any other nation — and that nearly two thirds of prisoners are Black or Latino. Government and institutional records on incarceration, law and policy abound, yet Americans have access to few archival materials from incarcerated people, their families and advocates. The new collecting focus aims to provide essential research materials that will advance scholarship on incarceration in the United States. 

“Prisons are designed to keep the incarcerated in and to keep others out,” said Kenvi Phillips, director of library diversity, equity and inclusion at Brown. “As a result, people who are incarcerated are largely absent from national conversations — with the exception of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has spoken on behalf of this often-invisible demographic. This collection will give scholars a rare chance to peer inside prison walls and understand how incarcerated people live, think and advocate for themselves.” 

“ This collection will give scholars a rare chance to peer inside prison walls and understand how incarcerated people live, think and advocate for themselves. ”

Kenvi Phillips director of library diversity, equity and inclusion

Peering inside prison walls

Over the last four decades, Abu-Jamal has published innumerable books and pieces of commentary on the carceral state and other social and political issues, including “Live from Death Row” in 1995 and “We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party” in 2004. He was described by the New York Times in 1995 as “the most visible of the 3,000 people awaiting execution on America’s death rows.”

Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia in 1954. In 1968, a teacher encouraged students to take African or Arabic names for classroom use and dubbed Cook “Mumia,” the name of an anti-colonial African nationalist who fought against the British before Kenyan independence. Later, Cook combined that name with the surname “Abu-Jamal,” which means “father of Jamal” in Arabic, after the birth of his son Jamal. 

As a teenager, Abu-Jamal became involved with the Black Panther Party, and he later became a radio reporter. In 1981, he was arrested on charges alleging he had murdered Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, and he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982. Nearly 30 years and numerous appeals later, a federal court overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence; he is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Abu-Jamal’s case is highly contested to this day, and conflicting accounts and pieces of evidence have convinced many that he is innocent.

The collection of Abu-Jamal’s papers and other personal effects paints a vivid picture of life as a prisoner, Phillips said. 

So, too, will the personal papers of Johanna Fernández, who attended Brown and graduated in 1993. While at the University, the Bronx native and first-generation college graduate attended a rally affiliated with the Free Mumia campaign, a movement led by people who believe Abu-Jamal was wrongfully convicted. In 2005, in the midst of a postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University, a colleague insisted that Fernández visit Abu-Jamal on death row, and the visit sparked a lifelong friendship between the two. Fernández edited “Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Abu-Jamal,” co-edited with Abu-Jamal a special issue on incarceration for the journal Socialism and Democracy, and wrote and produced “Justice On Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Abu-Jamal has for years trusted her with storing his papers.

“These two intertwined collections offer a living history of mass incarceration in America,” said Murphy, archivist at the Pembroke Center. “These are the personal stories of people who have deep experience with the carceral system, both directly and indirectly. The Hay Library and the Pembroke Center are fortunate that we were able to add them to our collections, with Johanna’s papers, in particular, fitting perfectly with one of the Pembroke Center’s collecting missions to preserve the archives of history-making Brown women."

Fernández has been a long-time member of the Pembroke Center Advisory Council, and in 2020, she participated in an oral history interview with Murphy discussing her experiences as a professor and pandemic-era radio host. Fernández’s stories of activism and advocacy led Murphy to pursue the acquisition of her papers — which in turn led to the acquisition of materials from Abu-Jamal. Murphy and her colleagues spent more than a year meeting with Fernández, gathering evidence of her life’s work as a scholar and records of Abu-Jamal’s 40 years in the carceral system, and ultimately uncovering important stories that will be of use to scholars of incarceration, advocacy and more.

Fernández’s work with Abu-Jamal is part of her larger devotion to promoting social justice. As an associate professor of history at Baruch College, her scholarship focuses on the root causes of social conflicts and movements. She has published extensive research on the Young Lords Party, founded by young Puerto Ricans in Chicago and often seen as a counterpart to the Black Panther Party. Her 2020 book “The Young Lords: A Radical History” won three of the country’s most prestigious history awards. In 2014, she sued the New York City Police Department, asserting that it had failed to produce public records of surveillance of the Young Lords in the 1960s and 1970s. Two weeks after a judge dismissed the suit, prompting citywide news coverage, police department employees recovered more than 1 million documents, including dossiers and extensive surveillance of members of the Black Panthers, Young Lords and Nation of Islam, in a warehouse in Queens, New York.

Included in the collection of Fernández’s papers and personal effects are items from her life at Brown — such as letters from family and friends, and posters and brochures from the Free Mumia movement — and material from her scholarly research, including audio interviews with members of the Young Lords Party, correspondence with Abu-Jamal and interviews with him recorded on vintage electronic media.

“This world-renowned imprisoned journalist and veteran Black Panther had endured 28 1/2 years on death row before a federal court ruled his death sentence unconstitutional,” Fernández said of Abu-Jamal. “In that soul-slaying isolation, he wrote the bestseller ‘Live from Death Row’ — the first book by a prisoner to detail life on the inside — and more than 1,000 erudite political radio commentaries. He has been a father to seven children, been a husband to his wife all these years and a friend and comrade to many. His is one distinct voice that, like more than 2 million nameless others, must be studied by future generations that wish to wrap their heads around the Goliath that is America’s prison industrial complex.”

The University acquired the Abu-Jamal collection, which had been stored in Fernández’s New York home, through a trust. In the separate but related acquisition, Brown secured the other materials directly from Fernández, who had stored her papers and personal effects at home.

“ These two intertwined collections offer a living history of mass incarceration in America. ”

Mary Murphy Archivist, Pembroke Center

Enriching scholarship and education

According to Strauss, the new collection builds on a number of rich resources for those who study 20th- and 21st-century mass incarceration. The University’s special collections are home to original copies of the Greenfield Review Press, a 1970s and 1980s magazine that famously printed poetry by people who were incarcerated. In addition, the Pembroke Center archives include numerous letters from incarcerated sex workers in Rhode Island and beyond, as well as an array of zines that feature commentary on prison systems in the U.S. The Hay Library is committed to expanding the size and scope of its scholarly resources related to incarceration in the years to come.

And the collection of personal stories from incarcerated people and their families continues to grow, thanks in part to a Mass Incarceration Lab directed by Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. Founded in 2021 and housed within CSREA, the lab is a classroom-based project that gathers accounts from people who are incarcerated and their families, as well as from members of communities that have felt the impact of mass incarceration. The lab has already collected more than 200 letters and oral histories from people across the country.

“Students in my undergraduate and graduate classes are taking great care to preserve the stories and powerful testimonies of so many people who have lived through and found life after incarceration,” Van Cleve said. “That act of preservation is important: It adds dimension and nuance to the story of incarceration in America, and it exposes the flaws inherent in our criminal justice system.”

Prioritizing incarcerated voices is also a central tenet of a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice research cluster titled Mass Incarceration and Punishment in America, which explores the links between anti-Black racism and crime and punishment in the U.S. through research by students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty.

“The CSSJ is committed to working with partners across the Brown campus and the globe to explore the ways in which settler colonialism and racial slavery were foundational to the formation of the world we live in today,” said CSSJ director Tony Bogues. “In order to understand why more than 2 million Americans sit in prisons and jails, and why more than one-third of that incarcerated population is Black, we need to reckon with the full extent of our past.”

Through all of this collecting and research, Strauss said, runs an ethos of responsible stewardship. Scholars take care to form meaningful relationships with the people whose stories they gather, in some cases giving them the option to remain anonymous or retain copies of their interviews and writings. 

And because Abu-Jamal’s story is inextricable from Philadelphia’s modern history, the John Hay Library is actively seeking ways to make the materials regularly accessible to residents of that city. They plan to digitize the collection to ensure expanded access, fund research trips for Philadelphia students so they can engage in hands-on work with the materials, and partner with Philadelphia-area cultural heritage organizations to raise awareness of the collection’s rich resources, among other initiatives.

“This isn’t solely Brown’s collection — it’s a collection for everyone,” Strauss said. “These firsthand accounts provide essential information about the personal experiences of incarcerated Americans that can’t be found in large-scale data. As is reflected in the phrase ‘you belong here’ emblazoned on the Hay Library’s wall, we are committed to not only collecting diverse material that illuminates the most pressing issues of our time, but also providing open access to that material for all researchers.”