Archiving the ‘Voices of Mass Incarceration’ at Brown’s John Hay Library

In 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. An ex-Black Panther, he had no prior criminal record. Amnesty International investigated his case and found in many ways that it "failed to meet minimum international standards.” He’s been incarcerated for more than 40 years.

Over those decades, Abu-Jamal has become a leader of the anti-death penalty movement and an influential critic of mass incarceration. He’s written multiple books, and appeared on countless radio programs and documentaries — all while serving what is now a life sentence. 

This fall, scholars and activists met at Brown to mark a new chapter in Abu-Jamal’s story. The John Hay Library at Brown University, in partnership with Brown’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, and the Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, acquired Abu-Jamal’s writings — 97 boxes — and opened them to the public. 

On this episode: Dan Richards talks with two Brown archivists about this new collection, and what it’s like preserving the work of one of the most famous incarcerated people in America. Dan also speaks with a scholar at Brown who is working to collect the histories of incarcerated people about the importance of filling this gap in our nation's historical record. 

Watch the opening remarks of the "Voices of Mass Incarceration" symposium’ 

Read more about the collection of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s archives

Learn about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts

Guests on this episode:

  • Amanda Strauss – Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Director of the John Hay Library
  • Christopher West – Curator of the Black Diaspora, Brown University
  • Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve – Associate Professor of Sociology, Brown University

[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In Nineteen Eighty-Two, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, an ex Black Panther, he had no criminal record.

Amnesty International investigated his case and found in many ways that it, quote, "failed to meet minimum international standards". He's been incarcerated for more than 40 years. From within prison, Mumia became a leader of the anti-death penalty movement and one of the world's leading thinkers and critics of mass incarceration.

He's written multiple books and appeared on countless radio programs and documentaries all while serving what is now a life sentence. His work and life have made him a social justice icon around the world. This fall scholars and activists met at Brown to a new chapter in Mumia's story.

The John Hay Library at Brown University, in partnership with Brown's Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and Brown's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, had acquired Abu-Jamal's writings, 97 boxes worth, and opened them to the public.

On this episode, what it's like to archive the work of one of the most famous incarcerated people in America and the importance of preserving the history of those affected by mass incarceration.



So in September, there was a symposium at Brown that marked the opening of this archive. It was called Voices of Mass Incarceration. The opening event featured three scholars who have all worked with Mumia in the past, Johanna Fernandez, Julia Wright, and Angela Davis. Yes, that Angela Davis.

After the opening remarks, they started their discussion by looking at the link between feminism and the movement against mass incarceration.

Women have always been responsible for these movements, always.


But early on in the opening panel discussion there was a surprise guest.


CREW: There's on the phone.


DAN RICHARDS: Johanna Fernandez received a phone call from Pennsylvania.

JOHANNA FERNANDEZ: This is-- sorry. Mumia Abu-Jamal was supposed to call a lot later in our conversation, but he's here now.


MUMIA ABUJAMAL (ON PHONE): I apologize for calling you a little early, but you get in where you fit in, so I'll fit in right now.

DAN RICHARDS: It was a fitting disruption to the standard academic format of a panel discussion, especially given that the archive, whose opening they were all celebrating, is something of a disruption in itself.

MUMIA ABUJAMAL (ON PHONE): Welcome to a night at Brown as we open the archives and thus print a new page in history.

DAN RICHARDS: The collection of Mumia's writings is part of a broader project at Brown's Library today to create an archive of life within America's carceral system, which is and has been experienced by millions and millions of Americans.

Later on in the episode, we're going to hear from a professor at Brown, who is working with students to make up for this gap in the historical record. But to start, I spoke with two figures at Brown's Library who played instrumental roles in bringing this archive to the public.

Amanda Strauss is the associate University librarian for Special Collections and director of the John Hay Library. And Christopher West is the curator of the Black Diaspora for Brown University. I spoke with them about Mumia's archive at Brown and why preserving stories of mass incarceration is so uncommon in libraries and research institutions today. We also talked about why it might become one of the biggest projects for those working in libraries and archives in the decades to come.


Chris, Amanda, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

AMANDA STAUSS: Thank you for having us.


DAN RICHARDS: So I wonder if we could just start for listeners who maybe aren't familiar just briefly who is Mumia Abu-Jamal, and why is he such a significant figure?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: So part of the context is to recognize that it's mid nineteen-sixties Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The police Department in Philadelphia even through the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties was well earned reputation for being used as a paramilitary force to contain the growing African-American community in the post-war, era incidents of beatings, incidents of abuse, incidents of arrest.

From that, in that context, will emerge a range of different local organizations, one of which is the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. There's a young man who will join that organization 15 or 16 years of age.

DAN RICHARDS: So Mumia joined the Black Panthers as a teenager.

CHRISTOPHER WEST: Not only that, but there is a summary document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that sent to his high school, which he never graduated from, identifying who he was, what he did, and his involvement with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

He's 17 years old. He has not held a weapon. And in fact, just to be clear, Mumia Abu-Jamal when he is arrested has had no previous arrest or conviction on his record. It's a clean record. And for an African-American man in Philadelphia growing up and being public, that's an anomaly.

He will work as a radio journalist. He will pursue investigations into the way that the City's both police as well as corporate structure operate. He does interest stories, some for predominant white press, some for predominant white radio, some for Black radio.

And on December of Nineteen Ninety-One, he is going to be arrested for the death of a officer Daniel Faulkner 4 o'clock in the morning, streets of Philadelphia. He will be convicted of first degree murder, and he will be placed into solitary confinement with the expectation that eventually his life will be taken from him by the state.

That begins in many ways a Free Mumia Campaign that moves globally for the next 40 years. And for now 41-plus years, Mumia Abu-Jamal has been incarcerated by the state of Pennsylvania for the death of Daniel Faulkner.

DAN RICHARDS: And he was on death row for a while, but that was changed at some point.

CHRISTOPHER WEST: So he, through a series of lawyers challenged it, eventually he was removed from death row, removed from solitary confinement, and placed into permanent incarceration.

DAN RICHARDS: And in all this time Mumia has, of course, become a prolific writer and thinker and activist. And his collected work that he has produced in prison, which includes writing but also art and music, they've found their way to Brown University. How did they wind up here?

AMANDA STAUSS: This collection came to light during the height of the pandemic, thanks to the hard work of my close colleague Mary Murphy who was the Pembroke Center archivist. Mary's role in the Pembroke Center is to document women's history, document feminist theory, and document the University archives.

She was in conversation with Johanna Fernandez, who is an alum of Brown University, and one of Mumia's advocates. She was in conversation with Johanna about her own collection. From what I understand, Mary hung up the phone with Johanna. And Johanna called Mary back and said may also be interested, but I have in my apartment the papers of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mary hung up the phone with Johanna and called me.

DAN RICHARDS: And what was your first thought when you heard about the existence of this archive?

AMANDA STAUSS: I had in fact just been reading an article about Mumia. A lot more articles about him came out during the pandemic because of health conditions in prison. Mumia is a central advocate for medical care in prisons particularly around hepatitis C.

But I believe, if I'm remembering, he also contracted COVID. And so I had just been reading about Mumia who is this global almost mythological figure, and then there came the opportunity that he has a collection. It was one of those moments that I frozen in time. I will always remember it.

DAN RICHARDS: Chris, how did you first learn about the potential of this archive? And as the first curator of the Black Diaspora at Brown University, how did it fit into your role and that role's mission?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: For me older Black male grad school undergraduate Berkeley, Mumia Abu-Jamal was in my head at the end every 5 minutes of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now because if you were in undergrad or grad school during that time period, Mumia Abu-Jamal was your voice.

So unbeknownst to everybody in the room, it's something I don't talk about, this is a completion of a circle because for me to be able to bring to light the voice of somebody who helped me during my grad career to conceptualize the way that I see the world, nothing I share with any, but I didn't share in the interview wasn't part of the process because there's been something magical.

I couldn't tell you. I don't know why. I think there is something very specific about the brilliance of the writer that connects in. And that's been the piece I think for both of us that's been humbling. So it's about him.

DAN RICHARDS: And Mumia Abu-Jamal papers and writings, this is just the most notable collection of a project that's ongoing at the Library to archive more of the history of mass incarceration from the perspective of people who have lived it or been affected by it. Why do you think it's an important and valuable use of Brown's time to collect and archive these histories?

AMANDA STAUSS: We know that there are more than 2 million people who are incarcerated at any given moment. The number of people who are impacted by the carceral system is extraordinarily large. But the footprint of the carceral system in the archives, the actual stories that you can have access to of people who have lived through this system is very, very, very small. So for me, it's too important a facet of our society to not have.

DAN RICHARDS: And I wonder what it's been like given that there's maybe not a ton of precedent for how to archive some of these materials. Is it really different than other types of collections you've worked with?

AMANDA STAUSS: One of our first and most important next steps is working with colleagues nationally to begin to articulate an ethical framework for collecting carceral material. This material is very similar to human rights archives that you might see in Latin America or South Africa. You have basically testimony of what is happening to people inside of prison.

It's not all dire. You also have incredible artwork. You have stories and essays, but really making sure that we can take care of these collections in perpetuity in the way that they deserve to be taken care of. We are in conversations with additional individuals and organizations about more material coming to Brown.

But we want to be very slow and steady, be very thoughtful and meaningful about this because it's also important that this material is not severed from the community. That we are collecting it in a way that can provide rapid access, that it can be used provide vigor and life to activist communities in addition to scholars. For me, it is a way of thinking about a liberatory framework of archives where we have an impact that's beyond the academy.

DAN RICHARDS: Chris, you described how from the beginning this project has had a personal impact on you but not, though, just regarding Mumia's archive specifically, what has surprised you the most about this project and collecting these stories of incarcerated people?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: It's personal. It's the incarceration of women and girls. That was a surprise. And we're doing it, this incarceration, for women who are just trying to feed their family. And the crimes that we're convicting them of are crimes of survival. We criminalize domestic violence, which a woman is simply saying, get your hands off of me and stop.

And then we criminalize the ways that they try to anesthetize themselves from the pain. That's the reason why we have the increase of mass incarceration and women in prison put simply. We've got to do something about it. That's been the most surprising piece to me. It's the allowance for that, for things that are really pretty simply resolved through additional resources.

You would take that incarceration rate for women, and it would drop. 40% of women who are incarcerated have children at the age of 13, which means that you're also now perpetuating that for multiple generations.

I hope that if listeners do anything thing, it's to really be mindful and listening and hearing and recognizing the pre-cursors that result in that incarceration, one of the precursor policy things that we can do to be able to make a difference.

DAN RICHARDS: So many of us, I think who are outside of the incarceration system maybe have very specific, not fully nuanced ideas of who and what are involved in the carceral system.

AMANDA STAUSS: That's right. People are fully human complex individuals. But if the stories aren't available in the archives, if they are hidden, then you can't have access to them. And that is a very deliberate choice.

There is an erasure of individuals from society. When you go behind the walls of a prison, you are cut off from society. And that's a two-way street. We can't see what's happening inside of the prison, and the incarcerated individuals can't see out here.

Until now what you've had access to are largely the records of the government. The government produces tons and tons of records, and that's what a lot of the major scholarship has been built on. And in fact, archives themselves from the origin of archives were built to document government records. So for us to now be moving to this space where we're documenting the stories of individuals who are incarcerated, it is a radical departure but also a necessary departure.

DAN RICHARDS: What do you think is the significance that this archive and this project is happening at such an elite institution in America and in the world? What do you make of that connection and that reality?

CHRISTOPHER WEST: Legacy institutions be they higher education, performing arts, government structures are having to grapple, I think, fundamentally with a reckoning. And we can treat that reckoning as what Lincoln called the house divided cannot stand, and we're going in that direction. Or we can recognize that the resources of the institution has the ability to make a difference, or you can recognize that it made a choice. Give it some credit now. Let's just be real about it.

Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles talks about if that you want to make a difference, you have to go to the margins. So give Brown credit. It went to the margins, and it went to the margins of the most still to this day called cop killer in reference to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a risky proposition for an Ivy League institution.

So I do think that the fact that the institution is willing, despite all of that, to take the risk to say that we actually are going to collect it, we're going to preserve it, I think that what folks got from the symposium and the intention of the John Hay's staff is, it is our responsibility to create an environment of learning. And it's part of the world of Brown University. That's what we're doing.

DAN RICHARDS: Amanda, Chris, thank you so much for talking with me and for all the work you're doing to preserve and share these histories.



DAN RICHARDS: As Amanda and Chris made clear, first person accounts of mass incarceration are woefully underrepresented in our country's historical records. One person who's trying to fill this gap is Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology at Brown.

Much of Nicole's work focuses on policing and the criminal justice system. Her Two Thousand Sixteen book Crook County was an award winning investigation of the racialized ways that crime and punishment are handled in America's courts. But recently, she's taken on a new project to explore and expose life on the other side of America's criminal justice system, not in the courts, but in the prisons themselves.

In Twenty Twenty, Nicole founded the Mass Incarceration Lab at Brown whose mission is to archive and catalog the stories of people affected by America's carceral system. I spoke with her about the lab and how the study of mass incarceration has changed since she first entered academia. We also talked about why collecting the stories of incarcerated people should be a priority for scholars in the social sciences.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: Thank you for having me.

DAN RICHARDS: Before we get into some of your work with the Mass Incarceration Lab, I wanted to ask you, you gave the opening remarks at this conference in September that celebrated the opening of Mumia Abu-Jamal archives. It was held at a packed auditorium at Brown, and the energy from students and scholars and whoever else was there it was palpable.

It also didn't hurt that Angela Davis, the iconic activist and scholar was one of these opening panelists. So before we get into everything else, I was just wondering if you could talk about your experience of that event a little and what it meant to you.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: It was like introducing a rock a major rock band or Beyonce or any of the epic celebrities that could take the stage. So I was hired right before the pandemic, and I was pretty much the first scholar here at Brown University to study mass incarceration in America as my core area of study.

I also study race. And when I came here, it was really uncertain. How would the University be able to support me if I'm the only faculty that studies this huge topic? And I think when there was this opportunity to get the Mumia Abu-Jamal archive, it just signaled this turning point.

I started with a small story when I gave the opening remarks to the symposium, and that was in Twenty Twelve. I sat on a panel as a brand new assistant professor in Philadelphia, and I was scheduled to speak with Mumia. He was on a panel, and he was supposed to either Zoom in or call in from prison.

And at the last second with hundreds of people waiting in the venue, the prison guards decided that he wasn't going to be allowed to speak. And it was disappointing to everybody, but it showed the true power of carceral systems, that they can silence you at a moment's notice. They can do it ceremoniously. They can do it in ways that degrade you. They can do it in ways that exhibits their power, their absolute power.

And I think one of the things I like to think about is that Mumia Abu-Jamal's story is a story about how he was in some ways profiled, maybe scapegoated, possibly wrongfully convicted for a crime that has so much what we would say racial dog whistles.

And so I think one of the most important things for me is that preserving the narratives of incarcerated people allows us to preserve the counter narrative that is usually created by system actors like police and prosecutors and judges that are vested with so much power, who are often the only figures that are listened to in the media.

And so it's a very one-sided dialogue. And so for us to truly equalize that, capturing these narratives of people incarcerated, whether it's Mumia's narrative, or it's narrative just of the everyday person that might find themselves incarcerated either for drug crimes, crimes that are innocent of, or crimes they committed, they have a story to tell. And the story that they have to tell really gives us a whole lens on our criminal justice system, one that we don't listen to enough.

DAN RICHARDS: So a lot of your work has been focused on the criminal justice system and especially on like the courts. And I wonder what made you transition more recently and in Twenty Twenty especially with the founding of the Mass Incarceration Lab, what made you want to focus in more on the stories and experiences of incarcerated people themselves?

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: It really was deeply important to me because during the pandemic, one of the first people that I knew who had passed was a man that had been incarcerated for years, and he was in a Pennsylvania prison. And I saw him and met him for coffee, and I was shocked to see him as a free man. And I thought there is hope, there's possibility.

And when his mother got sick with COVID, he went to go take care of her, and he died in the process of caring for her in the very first weeks of the shutdown. And I remember thinking that there was this sense of urgency, that there are too many people, especially mass incarceration, we can say has been going on for 30, 40 years now. The people that have been incarcerated at the start of it are very old. And if we lose their stories, we lose them.

DAN RICHARDS: And remind us just a sense of the extent of mass incarceration. These stories you're collecting, how big a part of American life and society are.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: It's an estimated about 2.5 million people are behind prison and jail, but there's also things like mass probation, meaning that you may not be in jail but you're under the arm of the state. You're constantly surveilled. That includes parole. It's even hard to quantify the amount of people that cycle in and out of jails.

I almost tell my students the numbers are too deceptively simple. They're enormous, but it doesn't tell you about the magnitude and impact on people's lives, meaning their whole lives are structured around these carceral apparatuses that are constantly telling them, surveilling every move, implicating them in traffic stops.

So they're going to run your record and see you might have had a DUI in the past, or you might had a drug possession in the past. And so they're going to search your record more, and then search your car. It opens up this whole network of control that can be exerted on your life. And once you get in that web, it is really hard to get out.

To give you an example, mass incarceration by the numbers, again, when we think 2.5 million, that's astounding. But once you're out there's so many jobs you cannot work, shifts you cannot work. If you're still under a parole, you will have to report to a parole officer. That interferes with work schedules. If you don't hold a job, you can be sent back to jail.

There are so many of these tricks and net widening that in some ways is like a gotcha policy so that once you get in, it's almost impossible, it feels almost impossible to get out. And so that's really the scary piece of mass incarceration. It is not just so much about the numbers within. It's about how it transforms social life within and outside.

And I think that's the important piece, and that's why so many people that are living on the outside that have been impacted by incarceration are really happy to share their story because the day to day burdens of always being marked for almost the rest of your life is insurmountable to some people. And they want to share that story and bear witness to what they're living through.

DAN RICHARDS: What does the process look like in this lab? How do you go about collecting these archives? How do you choose who to record? How does it actually work and look in practice?

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: One of the things that we do is we often reach out mass emails to prison educators, advocacy groups. And we just put out a big call right before the semester starts. And we said, we are accepting letters of all kinds from anybody who is incarcerated across the nation, jails, prisons, et cetera. And the incarcerated person has the option of using their name or remaining anonymous. So that's how we do letters because we realize how hard it is to create oral histories inside incarcerated spaces.

For oral histories, we reach out to reentry programs, other nonprofits, places where formerly incarcerated people are convening, creating resources, and we just offer to conduct their oral history. And so we've actually created some pop-up oral history projects where students just go to the reentry program and they say, if you want to tell your oral history, you want to share your story, we're here to take that story.

And what we find is that, there's no way this can be actually therapeutic. We're not doctors. We're not psychiatrists. But what we do realize is that recording a person's story affirms them in ways that we underestimated, I think, when we started.

And the students realized that by listening, recording, and preserving it's this empowering process because the person feels affirmed. And so that to me is a beautiful thing. Sometimes there's lots of tears, and sometimes these interviews in person now end in a hug or some kind of affirmation. And it's become this really healing thing that we just didn't even expect. So that's kind of how we run the laboratory experience.

But we've also now gotten lots of donations of letters. And so we just last semester received 60 letters from solitary confinement that were taken by a nonprofit advocacy organization. They were protected letters because they had been so wise in having the incarcerated person in solitary write to a senator that protects the letter from guards opening those letters.

And so we really had this goal because to see 60 letters of people held in solitary in our state, it's truly eye-opening the level of just total disregard for human life. Students took those letters, and they read them in the hearing to change and reform solitary.

As an educator, I was just so moved because to see Brown students actually becoming the voice of those folks that were in solitary confinement who could speak for themselves if not for where they're held and how they're held, it felt really powerful. It was the perfect collision of what a supposed dusty archive could do if moved into the real world in the real political arena.

DAN RICHARDS: That brings up something I wanted to ask you about too which is how you hope obviously for this archive to be used and for promoting social change. And I wonder how you see it fitting into the broader study of mass incarceration that is taking place in the United States increasingly?

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: Obviously, when you create an archive, you know that it's going to be used by historians, you know that it's going to be used by possibly lots of humanities folks. But I think what I was moved by. Especially coming to Brown and thinking about the legacy of slavery and how enslaved people build this University and Harvard and other places of elite education, I thought imagine not hearing the narrative of slavery coming from those who were in it, who were enslaved.

We would have a whitewashed picture of history, a gone-with-the-wind picture of history. That would create some mythologies about what incarceration is and was. And that's where I felt there was this urgency. I started with saying that the gentleman and friend Reem Cotton he passed. And I thought to lose his story in such a way was a tragedy in my view because so many years were taken from him, and he had so much to share, and some of it was shared. He actually lived a very fruitful life on the outside for a little while.

But I think that I'm not thinking just 10 years from now, I'm thinking 100. I'm thinking 200 years from now. Because I'm sure the enslaved people that lived at that time didn't think about social-- they couldn't envision or imagine, even the people who held them captive could not envision or imagine a world without slavery, without chattel slavery.

And so as I'm envisioning a world that could be better without prisons or certainly with less police and less criminal justice remedies that are so punitive, I think it's so enormously important that we document what's happening right now for generations to come.


DAN RICHARDS: Well, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: Thank you for having me.


DAN RICHARDS: At the opening event of the symposium in September, Mumia Abu-Jamal's phone call kept getting interrupted by an automated message.

AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Mahanoy. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.


DAN RICHARDS: Between those interruptions, Historian Johanna Fernandez asked Mumia,

JOHANNA FERNANDEZ: What does it feel like to have an institution like this one archive your life in prison?

MUMIA ABUJAMAL (ON PHONE): Do you ever hear the saying, "I didn't see this coming".

DAN RICHARDS: Everyone that night would have liked to have heard more from Mumia himself, but thanks to the work of many people inside and outside Brown, many of his words will be preserved for generations to come.

MUMIA ABUJAMAL (ON PHONE): It really feels remarkable, but I think it was meant to happen. Thank you. You helped make it happen.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch with production assistance from Eric Emma. Thanks again to Amanda Strauss, Christopher West, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, the John Hay Library, Brown's Pembroke Center, and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

If you want to learn more about Mumia's archives and the voices of mass incarceration symposium that was held at Brown this fall as well as the exhibit about Mumia's writings currently on display at the John Hay Library, we'll have links to all of that in the show notes.

If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you haven't subscribed yet to Trending Globally please do that too. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.


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Dan Richards

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