Date September 29, 2023
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Three-day symposium explores history, reach of mass incarceration in America

“Voices of Mass Incarceration: A Symposium” marked the public opening of an exhibition and John Hay Library collection with conversations, performances and receptions that drew hundreds from across the region and world.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “You ever hear the saying, ‘I didn’t see this coming?’” Mumia Abu-Jamal quipped.

The former journalist, activist and 41-year prison inmate joined a Brown University panel discussion on incarceration and the criminal justice system on Wednesday, Sept. 27, via a monitored and recorded prison phone line in Pennsylvania. 

Abu-Jamal wasn’t just floored to be a central focus of the night’s conversation. He was also amazed to observe that four decades of his writings, artworks and possessions from prison — 97 boxes of them — were now available for reading and viewing at Brown’s John Hay Library, the centerpiece of one of the nation’s largest collections of the first-person accounts of incarcerated people.

“Welcome to a night at Brown, as we open the archives and thus turn a new page in history,” he said on speakerphone, addressing hundreds of in-person and virtual audience members. “It feels really remarkable… this was not foreseen.”

Comments from Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 and has since become one of the most outspoken incarcerated advocates for racial equity and criminal justice reform, kicked off “Voices of Mass Incarceration: A Symposium.” The three-day event at Brown was replete 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; its events drew in diverse groups of activists and scholars from across the globe and Brown and Providence community members.

Jointly hosted by the Brown University Library, the Pembroke Center and the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the symposium also marked the public opening of the Abu-Jamal archives and the beginning of a year-long exhibition on mass incarceration extending across the Brown campus.

Amanda E. Strauss, director of the John Hay Library at Brown, said the symposium, exhibition and archival collections are all focused on boosting access to first-person accounts of incarceration to strengthen scholarship on the subject.

“This symposium is anchored in the archives, in the preservation of the collection of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and in creating space to preserve many other related collections that, when assembled together, allow us to hear the voices of the incarcerated,” Strauss shared in the symposium’s opening remarks. “This vast collection provides crucial insight into the U.S. carceral system… It is up to us, the archivists, the scholars, the activists, the students, the faculty, the citizens, [to decide] what will we do with these voices?”

‘This isn’t history — it’s today’

A few of the symposium’s speakers already had answers to Strauss’ question. 

In one conversation that examined the connections between Abu-Jamal’s case and the history of racial bias in policing in Philadelphia and other American cities, Yale University historian and legal scholar Elizabeth Hinton said consulting the records of the incarcerated could deepen, and perhaps even transform, the public’s understanding of important historical events.

“It is with these archives that we ensure that history does not get lost,” Hinton said. “In the absence of these archives, what historians would have… would all be state records — which are necessary, but we need to have both. These documents are so critical not just in understanding how we got here but also [in understanding] how to move forward.”

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology at Brown who moderated the discussion, agreed: In her Mass Incarceration Lab course, she and students work together to find and make available the stories of incarcerated people and their loved ones to contribute a better understanding of mass incarceration’s “living history.”

“One cannot understand the system of mass incarceration without centering the voices of those most impacted,” Van Cleve said. “Archives make history,” therefore, “losing a collection would be a purposeful act of historical erasure.”

Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan historian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Blood In the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” said that studying Abu-Jamal’s writings and records could add critical additional context to major events that shook the city of Philadelphia. 

In the 1970s, Thompson said, Black residents’ complaints about racist bias in Philadelphia law enforcement — incidents regularly covered by Abu-Jamal and other Black journalists at the time — had reached such a fever pitch that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stepped in to investigate the police department. Thompson said the commission’s investigation exposed rampant corruption and bias, forcing police to pay out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought against them. Tension between police and Black Philadelphians came to a head in a 1978 standoff where one police officer was killed and several activists were beaten.

Abu-Jamal’s trial and conviction three years later “then and thereafter came to encapsulate what had always been, and continues to be, at stake for Black Americans,” Thompson said. “That city is still very much a battleground… the cops are part of broader families who are policing who gets to go to which schools, who gets to live in which houses… This history Mumia brings to us through his voice, his writings, his music, isn’t history. It’s today.”

‘It’s our job to create ruptures’

That sentiment — that past events and the present day are inextricably linked — echoed across multiple events in the three-day symposium. In a Sept. 28 world-premiere performance of Abu-Jamal’s piece “Vampire Nation,” Brown Ph.D. student Marcus Grant and other musicians used chains as instruments to underscore the connections between racial slavery in North America and today’s prisons and jails, which Black Americans are nearly five times as likely to enter as white Americans, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. And a Sept. 29 conversation titled “The Policing Impact on the Carceral System” explored how past federal- and state-level campaigns and policies, including the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, caused the national incarcerated population to balloon to more than 2 million today.

This symposium is anchored in the archives, in the preservation of the collection of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and in creating space to preserve many other related collections that, when assembled together, allow us to hear the voices of the incarcerated.

Amanda E. Strauss Director, John Hay Library
Amanda Strauss speaking at a podium

The exhibition “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration,” which opened to the public on Sept. 28, also links past and present by using 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.

In the exhibition, “There is a replica of the cell that Mumia Abu-Jamal occupied for almost three decades on death row, and I was just mesmerized, because it [gives] perspective on… the restriction of space, the sensory deprivation,” said Julia Wright, a veteran of the Black Panther Party and the daughter of famed Black author Richard Wright. 

The Paris-based activist spoke at a Sept. 27 keynote conversation on how women often take on leading roles in social justice movements, joining Johanna Fernandez — a Baruch College historian and Brown alumna who is a longtime advocate and friend to Abu-Jamal — and Angela Y. Davis, the famed organizer and feminist scholar.

“Of course, the majority of people who are in prison identify as men,” Davis said. “However, who does that institution most impact? Who are the people you see in the visiting room?… Prison work has, in many ways, always been women’s work.”

Davis, who herself spent nearly two years behind bars, discussed how studying incarcerated people’s stories, and the stories of their loved ones, could help scholars identify and disrupt historical patterns of injustice and discrimination. 

In thinking about the throughline from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement, “I [keep] remembering how [this] repetitiveness appears largely because we don’t manage to solve the problem, or we misconstrue the problem in the first place,” Davis said. “We believed slavery was abolished, and of course we recognize the many ways now that slavery is incorporated into the warp and weft of the fabric of this country. It’s our job to create ruptures… it’s our job to stop that pattern of repetition.”

Disrupting those patterns, Fernandez said, involves giving voice to those who aren’t in leadership roles and whose records haven’t always been preserved — until now. Fernandez first recognized the importance of archiving as a student at Brown in the 1980s and 1990s: When she took part in campus demonstrations advocating for need-blind admissions, she saved some of the signs and posters. Those materials are now part of the John Hay Library’s Voices of Mass Incarceration collections, along with Fernandez’s decades-long correspondence with Abu-Jamal and her extensive scholarship on social justice movements.

“The things of the people at the bottom of society… are rarely preserved [or] are preserved in a very precarious way,” Fernandez said. “There’s been a lot written about imprisonment in the last 20 to 30 years; most of it comes from scholars and journalists. [But] who better to talk about… imprisonment than the imprisoned themselves? In a country that has imprisoned so many of its citizens, you can’t understand our society without hearing from that segment of the population… What bringing in the voice of the prisoner does is, it returns humanity to those our society has dehumanized.”