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Prisoner Albert Woodfox, held in solitary confinement for more than 43 years. Mural by Brandan “Bmike” Odums, photo by courtesy Brandan Odums.

Teaching histories of race and incarceration in the prison capital of the world

Benjamin Weber
Mar 14, 2016 · 11 min read
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Photo of Richard Ross’ Juvenile in Justice exhibit, Creative Alliance of New Orleans Gallery

Indeed, the deep-seated assumption that “bad people deserve to be locked up” is disturbingly durable.

To ensure that all students had the chance to grapple with issues of incarceration in a concrete and personal way, I designed a postcard exchange with men imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Inspired by artist Mark Strandquist’s “Windows from Prison,” I asked people who had lost a loved one while they were in prison how they would like that person to be commemorated. I started by reaching out to a group of prisoners from New Orleans who, along with more than 85 percent of the inmates, are serving life sentences at Angola. They responded by sharing a story about their lost loved one, and describing where and how we could help them pay respects. I encouraged my students to pick one that resonated for them.

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Photo of a commemoration by the author, fall 2015
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Dashcam Footage of Sandra Bland’s Arrest during a Traffic Stop

Contemporary social movements, like Black Lives Matter, are tirelessly working to create urgency around these issues. For people in prison, time is also of the essence.

In Louisiana, time sometimes has a way of standing still. Albert Woodfox, the last remaining member of the “Angola 3” in prison, was held in solitary confinement for more than 43 years before his release in February. This past summer, before his release, artist and activist Brandan “Bmike” Odums painted a 25-foot mural of Woodfox to bring renewed attention to his case (see opening photo). So, as students read fellow Angola 3 member Robert King’s autobiography in class, they also had the opportunity to engage with Woodfox’s struggle.

People most directly affected by an issue have the greatest insight into it.

Through the postcard exchange with men at Angola, students got the chance to relate to their family members. I was struck by how some of the men described a person they wanted us to go and meet, in the section of the form that asked where they would like the commemoration to take place. By blurring any strict distinction between people and place, they improved on the design of the project. These interactions proved to be most meaningful. Although we set out to commemorate their deceased loved ones, their living loved ones began showing up more and more. At an event to exhibit the postcards and gather community feedback on students’ project drafts, for instance, a death-row prisoner called his fiancé who was in attendance, and we were able to put him on the microphone so he could speak to everyone.

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Mac Phipps, portrait by his mother, Sheila Phipps, 2010, photo courtesy of the artist

While some white students worry about saying the wrong thing, many people of color worry about their safety, about being shot by the police, or wrongfully incarcerated.

Scholars Naomi Murakawa and Katherine Beckett explain in their article on the “penology of racial innocence” that many white people may think that racism is waning, yet in this age of racially targeted criminalization and hyper incarceration, people of color feel it ever more acutely. As prison abolitionists like Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba urgently reiterate, attempts at reforming the system have re-entrenched it. And, just as it becomes necessary to uncouple and critically examine powerful ideological pairings like crime/punishment or violent/nonviolent, a truly antiracist landscape without prisons, as art-activst-abolitionist jackie sumell told students, is “barren of the desire to punish.”

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Students in History 4991/5991 “Policing and Prisons in Local and Global Perspective,” fall 2015

Voices On Campus

A forum for and about AFT faculty and staff exploring the…

Benjamin Weber

Written by

Benjamin D. Weber is an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow

Voices On Campus

A forum for and about AFT faculty and staff exploring the intersection of higher education and labor

Benjamin Weber

Written by

Benjamin D. Weber is an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow

Voices On Campus

A forum for and about AFT faculty and staff exploring the intersection of higher education and labor

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