Learning from the “Inside”: Prisoner Art and Advocacy in the Archives

DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives has long been distinguished by the ways in which the university mission is reflected in our collections, services, and programs, with special attention given to DePaul’s commitment to teaching and to social justice. Our current exhibit, INCARCERATION: Art, Activism & Advocacy, showcases the creativity, resilience, dialogue, and agency of incarcerated individuals and the people and organizations that aim to support them, reflecting our commitment to collecting and promoting the use of materials relevant to the pursuit of social justice, and our respect for the individual that reflects the ideal of Vincentian personalism.

Untitled artwork
Untitled artwork by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson at Florida State Prison, 2006. Anthony Rayson zine collection, box 3, folder 9.

Incarceration and related issues — such as wrongful convictions, restorative justice, discriminatory policing and sentencing, prison conditions, and human dignity — have increasingly been covered in the news, in think pieces, in conferences, and in the classroom.  DePaul hosted a symposium this past fall on mass incarceration the same weekend that the University of Chicago hosted a conference on “smart decarceration.” DePaul’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program supported by the Steans Center is part of a large network of such programs.  INCARCERATION: Art, Activism & Advocacy contributes to this on-going dialogue and endeavors to put a human face on these issues by exhibiting personal correspondence, poetry, original artwork, prison zines, prison theater programs, and audio and video interview clips.

Liz McAlister letter
Letter from prison, Elizabeth McAlister to her children, 1977. Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister papers, box 15, folder 8.

Nearly twenty Special Collections and Archives instruction sessions in the past three years have drawn from archival collections featured in this exhibit.  Sr. Helen Prejean’s collection has most often been used by classes, followed by the Women, Writing and Incarceration Project records and the Anthony Rayson zine collection, which both feature work written by incarcerated individuals.  Selections from the Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister papers, Companions Journeying Together records, and Rick Cluchey papers were also used in these sessions.  These prison- and prisoner-related sessions were for a variety of departments, including Women’s and Gender Studies, Liberal Studies, School for New Learning, English, Art, and Sociology.

One case in the exhibit is dedicated to showcasing local and DePaul-specific organizations that educate, support, and advocate on behalf of incarcerated individuals. There is still space available if you know of student groups or programs that should be highlighted. Please contact exhibit curator Derek Potts for arrangements.

INCARCERATION: Art, Activism & Advocacy is on display through the summer in the John T. Richardson Library, Room 314.  Faculty with an interest in programs or instruction related to this exhibit, or in Special Collections and Archives’s materials related to incarceration and social justice are invited to contact Special Collections Instruction Librarian Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts.

To learn more about DePaul Special Collections and Archives, visit our webpage or contact us at archives@depaul.edu.

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