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Disrupting Narratives that Legitimize Long-term Incarceration, from the Inside Out

UC San Diego, UCLA Center for the Study of Women | Streisand Center and organizers with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Felony Murder Elimination Project awarded $2 million by the Mellon Foundation

A group of people hold signs in support of ending life without the possibility of parole sentencing.
Drop LWOP Coalition event attendees hold signs in support of ending life without the possibility of parole sentencing. A $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation will support research and efforts by the UC Sentencing Project to shed light on the effects of long-term sentencing in California. Photo courtesy of Drop LWOP Coalition.

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A new $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation will support the University of California Sentencing Project collective of organizers, scholars and artists – inside and outside of prison – as they work to disrupt the narratives that legitimize the racialized and gendered criminalization of people in California’s prisons designated for women.

As of January 2022, some 565,000 people – disproportionately Black, Indigenous and Latinx people – are under criminal supervision in California. According to the UC Sentencing Project, the problem of mass incarceration fueled by long-term sentences is particularly acute in the Golden State, which has the third highest number of people serving life without the possibility of parole in the U.S. 

The UC Sentencing Project is a collaboration across prison walls born out of decades of organizing within California prisons designated for women. The project aims to provide a better understanding of racial and gendered drivers of long-term sentences in California; highlight the impacts of these sentences on individuals, their families and their communities; and foster opportunities for those most impacted by extreme sentencing to voice their accounts of the U.S. criminal legal system and deepen their ways of supporting each other.

The project is housed at UCLA Center for the Study of Women | Barbra Streisand Center in collaboration with the University of California San Diego and currently and formerly incarcerated individuals from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and the Felony Murder Elimination Project

April Harris, a co-principal investigator on the project, is a writer who is serving a life sentence at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif. Harris has 25 years of experience of incarceration and organizing inside prison advocating for the health, well-being and freedom of incarcerated people. 

“Incarcerated people just want to tell their story,” Harris said. “They have never been able to do that. The courts and their evidence automatically create a narrative for them.”

The funding to UC San Diego, UCLA and community partner organizations will support multiple, interwoven streams, but at the center of the efforts are storytelling and creative writing workshops meant to allow system-impacted people to own their narratives and foster connection with each other. Combined with surveys and data gathered from Public Records Act requests, storytelling will be used to generate new narratives on the gendered and racialized experiences of incarceration by collectively creating videos, reports, scholarship, creative writing and poetry collections, performances and other events, ultimately seeking to disrupt existing preconceptions that legitimize and perpetuate long-term sentencing.

Through these efforts, the project aims to communicate the reality of long-term sentencing to policymakers, legislators, district attorneys and judges as well as establish resources for community-based organizations, scholars and currently incarcerated individuals navigating their ongoing criminalization. 

“Long-term sentencing’s broad effects on individuals, families and communities remains surprisingly understudied, despite extreme length of imprisonment being one of the primary drivers of the United States’ high numbers of incarceration,” said Joseph Hankins, associate professor of anthropology in the UC San Diego School of Social Sciences and principal investigator on the grant. “With this generous grant funding, we will seek to build opportunities to give system-impacted people agency of their narratives in a way that has not been done before.”

Grace Kyungwon Hong, director of the Center for the Study of Women|Streisand Center, professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies at UCLA and co-principal investigator of the UC Sentencing Project, added: “Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have determined the vision and direction of the project from the beginning. We couldn’t do this work without their expertise and perspective.”

Jane Dorotik is a co-principal investigator of the project and long-time organizer with CCWP in California prisons. She served 20 years on a conviction that was eventually overturned and, based on her years of organizing, offered the initial vision for the project, insisting on the expertise of those who have faced and served long-term sentences. 

“Mass incarceration has been an abysmal failed experiment that has massively harmed our society,” said Dorotik. “It’s time to listen to and learn from those who know the most about these failures.” 

The UC Sentencing Project aims to help achieve that goal.

The grant is part of the Mellon Foundation’s Imagining Freedom initiative, which is designed to support arts and humanities organizations that engage the knowledge, critical thinking and creativity of millions of people and communities with lived experience of the U.S. criminal legal system and its pervasive forces of dehumanization and silencing. The project also received initial seed funding from the UC San Diego School of Social Sciences Funding for Projects Advancing Racial Justice, the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy Seed Grant, the UCLA Racial and Social Justice Grant and the UCLA Transdisciplinary Research Acceleration Grant.

Learn more about the UC Sentencing Project.

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