Writing For Social Justice: An Intimate Conversation On the Impact of Mass Incarceration & Criminal Justice Reform

We’re exited to announce we’ve received our first round of essays for a new project and achieve we’re building: The Social Justice Autobiography Project which is an online forum dedicated to providing a platform for prisoners across the United States to provide us with first hand accounts of their experiences on the inside, which are then shared with tomorrow’s leaders – college students – in an interactive process.

Incarcerated participants have be tasked to write a 2 to 3 page essay reflecting their views on the subject of social justice and the criminal legal system. The essays were be read by a class of college students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who then selected 10 to 25 to respond to and for publication. In an interactive process, the essays and responses were edited and compiled for publication.

Incarcerated participants were asked to write an essay, reflecting on what social justice means and whether they believe it can be achieved; their understanding of the nature and achievements of social justice movements, factors that have informed their understanding and experience of social justice; and how they have arrived at that understanding over the course of their lives.

These essays and the student responses are now going to be used as the basis of long form journalism that our incarcerated founder, Ivan Kilgore, will undertake to unpack the effects of the system on individuals and families.

What is significant about this project’s approach? It creates an opportunity to develop, inform, and shape the perspectives of people both inside and outside the system. Many college students who have an interest in criminal and social justice reform are seeking opportunities to work directly with people impacted by mass incarceration—prisoners.

Here, we have those closest to the problem and those seeking to better understand and change our country’s position as the world’s largest incarcerator, both invested with the power to shape the narrative using firsthand accounts, and increase the public’s understanding of the changes that need to be made to fix a “broken” system.

Notably, this project was inspired by the our founder’s 20 plus years of serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole during which he discovered the power of the written word. Through his writings, he learned to affect change and inspire people to look beyond their current circumstances to find ways to make a contribution to society. Today his writings are required reading in college level classes across the nation. The the proceeds generated from his writings are used to support this organization.

The idea for this project grew from Ivan’s correspondence with Professor Megan McDrew who was teaching a college course on sociology in prison; it was suggested that he use the Social Justice Autobiography project in the Writers’ Room Workshop he taught in prison.

As of January 14, 2021, Ivan was able to present the details of the project to a group of students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and 20 students signed on as volunteers. To date, over 100 prisoners across the United States were mailed a copy of the writing prompt and encouraged to enroll.

As noted, the impact that we hope this project will have is its ability to shift control of the narrative to incarcerated people to humanize their condition and redeemable qualities. Moreover, we hope it will impact our readers and the public and expose the many tentacles of mass incarceration. Our target audience will be proponents for criminal justice reform, abolitionists, students, social science researchers, and community-based organizations addressing the root causes of mass incarceration.

This effort strives to catalyze conversations on mass incarceration and amplify the voices of those impacted. Autobiographical storytelling has proven to affect changes in perspectives on crime and punishment in the United States. We believe our student participants will come away with a newfound understanding of the criminal justice system and carry this over into their careers as future policymakers, social workers, legal scholars, and more. We also believe the prisoner participants will be invested with a sense of value and inclusion in the process of change, which will provide them with hope for the future.

We hope the exchanges derived from this forum will inspire readers to take a moment to pause and reflect on current reform efforts. We hope to facilitate change by mending the bridges between communities: inside/outside, prisoner/student, prison/university, citizens/policymakers, activists/society, and more.

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