The cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police incited one of the largest mass uprisings in US history, with Black youth and their allies participating in a long tradition of revolutionary Black freedom struggles. With perhaps less public profile, the disproportionately Black and Brown population of California prisons continue to wage a struggle for their lives against the deadly Covid-19 virus. The daily dangers they face are exacerbated by medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, and crowded cells. State officials refuse to release incarcerated people, despite thousands of infections and dozens of deaths.
At the height of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, prisons became a focal point of both revolutionary organizing and state repression. Documents that reveal the fortitude, resistance, and freedom dreams of incarcerated people make up what historian Kelly Lytle Hernández has called the “rebel archive.” These documents allow us to weave together this past and our present. Rebel Archives in Black Power California centers incarcerated revolutionaries who exposed horrific prison conditions and galvanized the movement for Black liberation in the prisons and the streets. Brutal state repression proved deadly for many prison rebels like George Jackson, but it also fostered resistance and uprisings across the nation that continue to this day.
California pioneered mass incarceration in the United States and led the nation from the 1980s until the mid 2000s in prison expansion, building 23 new prisons and increasing the prison population sevenfold. Abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore described the state of California as a “golden gulag” in her influential book of the same title. As Californian prisons became infamously overcrowded, incarcerated people faced extreme medical neglect and abuse. In 1996, Charise Shumate, Mary Shields, and their comrades inside and outside prison walls fought back in the courts and by caring for one another. They founded the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which today continues to struggle for the freedom of people incarcerated in women’s prisons during the COVID crisis. Sisters in Solidarity: The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Feminism, and Abolition tells this story and speaks to the transformative vision of abolitionist feminism embodied in their struggle.
In More Than a Statistic a map and a data dashboard detailing how COVID-19 and state medical neglect has ravaged California's prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers is juxtaposed with the personal stories of incarcerated people living through the crisis. This exhibit also highlights the agency and resistance of incarcerated people who continue to fight for their lives and freedom.
Echoing Gilmore’s dedication to “scholar-activism,” as students in the UCLA Department of Information Studies we seek to use the Rebel Archive to further the struggles for freedom and justice of organizations such as the CCWP, Santa Rita Jail Solidarity, Survived and Punished, JusticeLA, Critical Resistance, Families United to End Life Without Parole, 8toAbolition, Black Lives Matter, and the Freedom Archives. We also stand in solidarity with Divest/Invest and the No UCPD Coalition on our own campus and other efforts to divest from the University of California Police Department and instead invest in Black students and reparative public goods, thereby employing the resources of the university to move us all towards the horizon of abolition.
We have been honored to work on this exhibit with organizers on the frontlines of the movement. Our partners Nathaniel Moore and Claude Marks of The Freedom Archives embody the values of the Black radical tradition by preserving the history of prison struggles and the Bay area’s liberatory social movements. They provided both the documents and scholar-activist insight for the exhibits Rebel Archives in Black Power California and Sisters in Struggle: The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Feminism and Abolition. We want to thank CCWP members Pamela Faden and Adrienne Sky Roberts for their invaluable expertise and input on Sisters in Struggle: The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Feminism and Abolition, and the COVID Dashboard. We want to thank Eric Wayne for his testimony on the conditions at Santa Rita jail as well as Santa Rita Jail Solidarity for their help sharing his story. Thank you Voices of San Quentin for collecting testimonies and the incredibly brave individuals who shared their testimonies. We also used data from Covid-19 Behind Bars, Perilous Chronicle, and the UCLA Prison Law Project. We want to thank our mentor in abolitionist librarianship and rebellious data driven storytelling, Zoe Borovsky for her invaluable support in this project and student struggles and Professor Anne Gilliland for her expert advice and dedication to human rights for all.
UCLA Department of Information Studies:
Adrienne Sky Roberts
With additional materials from:
UCLA Digital Library Program and UCLA Library Special Collections
Professor Anne Gilliland
Associate Dean for Information Studies
Librarian for Digital Research and Scholarship