The wide-ranging art project Barring Freedom delves into unsettling aspects of prisoners' lives, with prison factory American flags, troubling sounds from Chicago's Cook County Jail, letter descriptions of an imagined garden. In one piece included in the UC Santa Cruz project’s recent exhibition co-organized with the San José Museum of Art (SJMA), artist Titus Kaphar suspends words excerpted from court documents by poet Reginald Dwayne Betts across a large portrait. The words tell the story of a Black father of three jailed for 23 days and forced to clean feces and blood from the floors, all because he couldn't pay court fines. His detention also cost him his job.
By highlighting one man’s experience, Kaphar and Betts seek to draw attention to the criminal justice and prison system’s devastating and long-lasting impacts on the lives of those it ensnares, even for the most minor offenses, and the pervasive social and economic destruction and upheaval it causes. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars in 2020, in more than 7,000 correctional facilities. Of those imprisoned, the majority are not accused of serious crimes but are charged with misdemeanors or non-criminal violations. And most are Black or brown.
Activists, including many UCSC scholars and artists, have long sounded the alarm over structural racism and mass incarceration. In May 2020, however, the killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a police officer raised the calls to action to a much higher pitch. Thousands around the world marched with demands to end racist institutions and practices. Shouts and signs of ”defund the police” scared many who thought it meant no constraints on crime. But those envisioning radical change in the criminal justice system say it would mean less crime because the new practices and institutions they call for would help ameliorate the conditions that cause crime in the first place.
“The abolitionist imagination allows us to imagine other ways of addressing issues of safety and security,” distinguished professor emerita of feminist studies Angela Davis told the New York Times last October, following the massive summer protests for policing reforms. “Most of us assume that when it comes to public safety, the police are in charge. When it comes to issues of harm in the community, prisons are the answer. But what if we imagined different modes of addressing harm, different modes of addressing security and safety?”
The multifaceted Barring Freedom, together with its offshoots, Visualizing Abolition and Music for Abolition, provides fodder for this imagining. Over the course of a year the project has drawn together 22 artists and more than 35 speakers and 15 musicians. More than 4,000 students nationwide have participated through the study guide and other resources provided by the project's website. “A growing number of exhibitions and art projects are taking up the challenge of revealing the deep social harms enacted by prisons and policing,” said Barring Freedom co-curator Rachel Nelson, director of the UCSC Institute of the Arts and Sciences. “Multiple studies have shown the arts and education can play important roles in addressing systemic inequalities and promoting a culture that prioritizes empathy and understanding.”
Long time coming
Barring Freedom grew out of a conversation more than four years ago between Nelson and professor emeritus of sociology Herman Gray, an expert in Black cultural politics. At the time, there was growing unrest and anger following abusive and deadly police actions against Black and brown people captured on cell-phone videos. The Black Lives Matter movement had emerged and, together with the power of social media, was driving a new wave of activism aimed at changing the criminal justice system. Long-time activist artists such as Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, known for photographing the Louisiana State Penitentiary for decades, and others, including professor of film and digital media Sharon Daniel and jackie sumell, found themselves joined by an emerging new group of artists.
Adding scholarship and other arts to the mix made sense for Barring Freedom, Nelson said, since UCSC is a place where art, research, and activism around prisons have flourished. The focus also perfectly fit one of the campus’s three academic priority areas: “Justice in a Changing World.” Among those joining up were Davis and project collaborator Gina Dent, associate professor of feminist studies, both among the faculty and student founders in 1997 of Critical Resistance, a group formed to challenge the idea that imprisonment and policing can solve social, political, and economic problems. Another was distinguished professor of psychology Craig Haney, who has spent four decades studying the damaging psychological effects of imprisonment and solitary confinement. Also: anthropology assistant professor Savannah Shange, whose research focus includes racism and the Black diaspora; Daniel, whose multimedia artworks explore prison labor politics; and associate professor of art Dee Hibbert-Jones, an Emmy-winning filmmaker whose documentaries address racism and crisis in the criminal justice system.
The initial vision evolved over time with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting social constraints. To replace a summit gathering of experts, the collaborators created Visualizing Abolition, a series of virtual events held over several months. Streamed live and then archived, each event featured a mix of artists, activists, scholars, and lawyers. They also added Music for Abolition, directed and curated by Grammy Award–winning drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington, with the aim of bringing together “musicians across a variety of genres to create a soundtrack—and provide a heartbeat—to our shared struggle for abolition.”
Nelson and graduate student Alexandra Moore—supported by funding sources including the Nion McEvoy Family Trust, Ford Foundation, and Future Justice Fund— co-curated the exhibition at the SJMA. “The art in this exhibition,” said Moore, “is particularly committed to challenging and shifting societal narratives and structures.” To this end, she and Nelson chose a diverse group of contributors from across the country to reflect different perspectives and a broad range of policing and prison systems. In shaping the project's in-person—limited, unfortunately, by COVID-19—display, the pair worked with SJMA senior curator Lauren Schell Dickens. Describing the experience, Dickens said, “I'm drawn to projects I can learn a lot from—Barring Freedom and Visualizing Abolition have been profoundly eye-opening.” The exhibition travels to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York this fall.
Imagining the future
The project’s sweeping website contains everything connected to the project, including the art in the exhibition, music, and archives of the discussions. Crafted by Moore and fellow graduate students Abram Stern and Aaron Mulenga, the site also offers extensive study guides for exploring each of Barring Freedom’s four themes: “the histories that structure our current system of incarceration and policing; the ways the carceral state shapes our vision of the world; bridging the distance between inside and outside the prison; and imagining possible abolitionist futures.” The project’s creators and collaborators hope that the inspiration, education, and fruitful discussions it offers will help eliminate racism and shape dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. The reach so far, Nelson said, has gone beyond anything they imagined, with tens of thousands of people across the U.S. and around the world attending the online discussion events and other virtual programming.
The project challenges its viewers and participants to think about justice in a new way. In a video created for the website, formerly incarcerated Emile DeWeaver, a co-founder of Prison Renaissance, an art and community-building program that aims to create “transformation to end cycles of incarceration,” puts it this way: “Do you believe in universal health care, housing for everyone, and a universal income? Would you want those things in this world? Would you trade prisons and police for that? That’s what abolition is.”