Date September 8, 2023
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Library exhibition on Mumia Abu-Jamal to shed light on the experience and impact of incarceration

An exhibition and symposium at Brown University will use Abu-Jamal’s writings, correspondence and creative work as the entry point into a larger conversation about the impact of the American carceral system on millions of lives.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — An upcoming exhibition at Brown University will share valuable insights into the incarcerated life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist the New York Times once described as “the most visible of the 3,000 people awaiting execution on America’s death rows.” The exhibit of a rare special collection of written papers and other materials will give scholars and members of the public a sense of the sweeping impact the American carceral system has had on millions of lives, including the family and friends of those who have spent time in prisons and jails.

Opening on Thursday, Sept. 28, and extending across multiple sites on Brown’s campus, “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration” offers an inside view into the life of a man who has been imprisoned in Pennsylvania for 41 years. A journalist who was convicted of murder and is now serving a life sentence (his death sentence was overturned in 2011), Abu-Jamal’s incarceration has stirred fierce national debates about racial injustice and the ethics of the death penalty.

Accompanying the exhibition’s opening is “Voices of Mass Incarceration: A Symposium,” a Sept. 27-29 event with performances and conversations focused on law enforcement, medical care in prisons, public art, the impact of incarceration on women and girls, and the history of incarceration. The symposium will bring together artists, scholars from Brown and special guests including feminist activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis, political activist Pam Africa and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Heather Ann Thompson. And it will mark the world premiere of “Vampire Nation,” one of four original pieces of music Abu-Jamal composed in solitary confinement.

Amanda E. Strauss, director of the John Hay Library at Brown, said that beyond an examination into one incarcerated person’s life, the exhibition and symposium offer a broader view into mass incarceration in the U.S.

“The exhibition and symposium both shed light on the daily realities of incarceration, foregrounding many of the persistent issues that millions of prisoners encounter with their health, their psychological well-being and their ability to advocate for themselves while incarcerated,” Strauss said. “By offering a glimpse into Mumia Abu-Jamal’s papers, and by engaging scholars across the country in conversation, we hope to catalyze more scholarship and conversation about a topic that affects so many lives.”

The exhibition and symposium come a year after the John Hay Library, home to the University’s special collections, in partnership with Brown’s Pembroke Center, acquired a vast set of records, writings and artwork from Abu-Jamal, whose trial and incarceration have prompted deep legal examination and fueled international discussion for decades. Mary Murphy, archivist for the Pembroke Center, and Strauss partnered with Brown’s Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America to secure the papers for the University.

The exhibition is not telling viewers what to think about Abu-Jamal, Strauss said — it’s about giving people the rare opportunity to step into the world of an incarcerated person.

Abu-Jamal’s papers — which will open for research on Sept. 27 — serve as an anchor for a strategic collecting focus at the John Hay Library called Voices of Mass Incarceration in the United States. 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.

Among the library’s collections is a growing number of oral histories and letters from incarcerated people and their families collected by students in the Mass Incarceration Lab directed by Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve and housed at the John Hay Library.

“Many people’s knowledge of incarceration is limited to statistics: Almost 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated, and one in three Americans is arrested by age 23,” Van Cleve said. “What the exhibition and symposium will do — and what we do in the Mass Incarceration Lab — is humanize this phenomenon. By showing people what incarcerated people read, what they go through to get access to health care and what their living quarters look like, we’re sharing a much fuller, much more nuanced idea of what mass incarceration in America really looks like, and that could influence research for generations.”

Understanding the experiences of people who have spent time in prisons and jails can inform a broader understanding of how the expanding carceral system has transformed American society, according to the exhibit’s organizers.

Solitary confinement, up close

Strauss said elements from “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration” will be displayed across four centers of scholarship at Brown: the John Hay Library, the Rockefeller Library, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Its main site is the John Hay Library, where original material from the Mumia Abu-Jamal papers, including books, journals and prison correspondence, will be displayed to the public for the first time. In creating the exhibition, the curatorial team partnered with organizations that are actively addressing broader policy issues centered on incarceration, including the People’s Paper Co-op, a women-led art and advocacy project at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, which is featured in the exhibit.

The Rockefeller Library will display posters and ephemera from Revolution Books in Harlem, New York, a site of organizing for and repository of information on the various “Free Mumia” movements from around the globe, which declare Abu-Jamal’s innocence. Exhibition spaces at CSREA and the Simmons Center will showcase some of Abu-Jamal’s musical compositions and visual artwork, exploring the intricate relationship between art, incarceration and social consciousness.

The Hay Library will also display some of Abu-Jamal’s personal belongings, such as a prison-issue radio and a pair of glasses; court documents from his trial and appeals; a range of his writings from solitary confinement; and historical information about prison design and architecture. The exhibit focuses on elements of Abu-Jamal’s advocacy work for other imprisoned individuals, including records of his successful lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, which allowed him and many other incarcerated people to receive antiviral treatment for hepatitis C. Visitors will have the opportunity to view a replica 6-by-9-foot solitary confinement cell much like the one where Abu-Jamal was once kept for 22 hours a day and from which his voluminous collection originated.

Lead exhibit curator Christopher West, curator of the Black diaspora for the John Hay Library noted: “There is ample evidence dating back to the 1840s that solitary confinement can be a psychologically damaging experience. What’s less studied is the impact incarceration can have on a person’s physical health. We hope that the materials we share here will drive scholars to the many health-related personal accounts in the Mass Incarceration Lab project.”

West said he curated the exhibition alongside Justin Li and Sophie Butcher, Brown undergraduates who became passionate about sharing the stories of incarcerated people after taking Van Cleve’s Mass Incarceration Lab course. Together, West, Li and Butcher combed through more than 80 boxes of materials to choose the items in the exhibition, also assembling a digital companion to the exhibition that allows visitors to dive deeper into the materials. Other colleagues played instrumental roles as well: Amanda Knox, assistant archivist at the Pembroke Center, spent months processing the materials and creating a finding aid for the collection; and Ed Lindstrom, a senior expert in library facilities and building safety, worked with West to construct the replica cell.

“People from every corner of Brown played a role in putting together this exhibition, and I think that collaboration is what has made it so rich and educational,” West said. “That’s part of the reason why the exhibition extends across campus: the University community is working together to highlight the voices of incarcerated people, and the exhibition and symposium work together to share these stories.”

Examining incarceration’s impact through voices

To mark the opening of the exhibition and the Mumia Abu-Jamal papers to researchers, the University Library will host “Voices of Mass Incarceration: A Symposium” in late September — three days of conversations, performances and other events that will examine the history and impact of mass incarceration in the U.S.

“The symposium will bring together people who are confronting the crisis of mass incarceration in the U.S. in very different ways — some through scholarship, some through art, some through storytelling,” Strauss said. “Bringing these approaches together will help us all think about how to elevate incarcerated voices in a way that enriches research and ultimately makes a positive impact on peoples’ lives.”

A Sept. 27 keynote conversation convened by the Pembroke Center will focus on the women who led the activist movement to reopen Abu-Jamal’s case and will feature feminist academic Angela Y. Davis; political activists Pam Africa and Julia Wright; and Johanna Fernández, a Brown Class of 1993 graduate, historian of social movements and 20th century American history, and Abu-Jamal’s longtime advocate and friend. Fernández’s personal papers, which include her correspondence with Abu-Jamal, are also part of Brown’s special collections.

On Sept. 28, the day will begin with the premiere of “Vampire Nation,” a piece composed by Abu-Jamal that will be performed by an ensemble led by Brown graduate student Marcus Grant, a drummer and percussionist.

Van Cleve will lead an afternoon panel discussion titled “Biography as History: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia and the Nation,” which situates Abu-Jamal’s case within the latest scholarship on the history of incarceration, making connections between the current American carceral state and America’s history of chattel slavery. Among the speakers is Heather Ann Thompson, who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”

A second panel will bring together artists and prison abolitionists for a conversation about projects that employ art and social practices as a means of reimagining and creating public spaces of healing, reflection and renewal for and by incarcerated persons. In the evening, an exhibition opening reception at the Hay Library will include remarks from Strauss and West and a reading by poet Celes Tisdale, who led poetry workshops with those incarcerated at Attica following the 1971 uprising.

On Sept. 29, the symposium’s final day opens with “The Policing Impact on the Carceral System,” where law enforcement experts will discuss police, policing and accountability in relation to the carceral system; and “The Crisis of Medical Care and the Carceral State,” a discussion with medical and psychiatric experts on major issues in mental and physical care for incarcerated people.

A final panel, “Say Her Name: Gender, Justice and Healing,” will grapple with the rising rates of incarceration among American women and the reverberating effects on families and communities. Speakers include Sashi James, director of reimagining communities at the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life, which supports people rebuilding their lives after incarceration.

Interwoven throughout the symposium will be poetry readings, including the poetry of incarcerated poet Christopher Presfield and literary artist DaMaris B. Hill, invocations and other moments that give attendees opportunities to process the discussions, Strauss said.

“We know that two-thirds of Rhode Island residents are impacted by incarceration and that members of the Brown community have been directly touched by the carceral state,” Strauss said. “Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing issues of our time. We want attendees to walk away with a sense of hope inspired by the panelists and the stories they tell of human suffering and resilience.”

“Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration” will be on view from Sept. 28, 2023, to July 2024. An opening reception will take place on Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the John Hay Library. More information is available at

“Voices of Mass Incarceration: A Symposium” will take place from Wednesday, Sept. 27, to Friday, Sept. 29, at Brown’s Salomon Center for Teaching, Sayles Hall, Granoff Center for the Creative Arts and John Hay Library. To register for the symposium, visit