Madelyn Kumar, Senior Photographer

Last Friday, the Whitney Humanities Center hosted a symposium in the Humanities Quadrangle on “Incarceration & Imagination.” 

The event featured speakers from Yale and beyond who shared their perspectives on the deeply complicated but extremely prevalent issue of mass incarceration in the United States and how it has affected the public perception of imprisonment.

From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. attendees were witness to a series of thought-provoking conversations about the legal and moral dilemmas surrounding incarceration. The first two panels, “The Literary History Of The Incarcerated Mind” and “The Image Of Prison In The Public Mind,” presented mass incarceration’s portrayals in popular culture and reflected on the implications of such depictions. 

The afternoon session, called “Incarceration, Decarceration, and Education,” shed light on the transformative nature of prison education. Speakers included Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature Emeritus Peter Brooks and Antonne Henshaw, a former inmate from East Jersey State Prison who was a student of Brooks. The panel was followed by a final discussion consisting of a series of contemporary readings. 

“Everyone involved had an interest in bringing education into prisons and talking about how prisons can be thought of in cultural terms,” said Brooks, one of the key organizers of the event. 

Brooks, who has detailed his experience with teaching in prison in an essay for the Yale Review titled “Prison Term,” repeatedly referred to his work with incarcerated people as “transformative.” 

According to Brooks, unsurprisingly, prison education is quite different from the one offered at an Ivy League school.

“I hope my teaching at Yale means something,” Brooks said. “When you’re teaching in a prison, you think it means a great deal… You just feel what you are doing makes such a difference in the lives of the incarcerated. When you go into prison for the first time, it’s difficult. I mean, it’s a place without color, without any seeming relationship. Getting into books and ideas and discussing them together just creates another world within the prison that I think can be very full of meaning both for the students and for the teachers.”

Brooks has also served as the founding director of the Whitney Humanities Center.

Megan O’Donnell, an associate communications officer at WHC, shared that one of the missions of the symposium was to “bring these really important conversations together in one space.” 

“A lot of what’s being discussed is shifting the view from incarcerated people as subjects of reading or subjects of academic work to peers [we’re] working with or collaborating with,” O’Donnell said.

Joy James, the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams College, said during the first panel that academics “can easily take the stories of the impoverished or the captive or the undocumented” and “become ventriloquists speaking for them, shaping their narratives and making them more palatable for the public.” 

Sylvia Ryerson GRD ’24, a multimedia artist and an organizer who is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in American Studies at Yale, reaffirmed James’ points. 

“To transform the prison system, we also need to transform the university and the structures in place here at Yale that perpetuate these systems of exclusion and dispossession,” Ryerson said.

She added that she was particularly moved by Richard Rivera’s words during the “Readings” session who argued that “prison is a human encounter with the absurd.” 

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the symposium, attendees were often challenged to think about incarceration through multiple perspectives. Xinyi Xie ARCH ’24 came to the event with the hope of gaining insight into prisons and exploring their architectural infrastructure by considering the more “personal” aspects of the subject.

Xie explained that the amalgam of approaches, including those of scholars, journalists and historians, showcased how the panelists are “dealing with really similar ethical issues but the format of how they’re working is so different” and that the symposium “really makes you think about how your own studies might manifest in very different avenues.”

Apart from “Incarceration & Imagination,” WHC hosted another event in the Humanities Quadrangle, called “Beyond Walls: Filmmaking for Prison Abolition” on Thursday, Oct. 13. 

According to O’Donnell, in order to “keep the conversation going,” WHC plans to organize a “Beyond Walls: Part 2” conference in the spring and bring formerly incarcerated multimedia artist Jesse Krimes to showcase his artworks and do a screening of MTV’s “Art & Krimes by Krimes” documentary.

“Incarceration & Imagination” was free and open to the public. Details about the full list of speakers can be found on the WHC website.