Art, Prisons, Policing, and Abolition

Amid a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black and brown people and after yet another series of police murders of Black Americans, the United States is in the midst of a historical reckoning about racism, economic inequality, and the nation's criminal justice system. Many more people are beginning to ask a question that philosopher, educator, and anti-prison activist Angela Davis asked almost two decades ago: "Why do we take prison for granted?"

As Prof. Davis points out, the statistics about incarceration in the U.S. seem like they would have led long ago to a general outcry. The prison population in the nation has soared more than 500% in just forty years, to over two million incarcerated people. This is the largest population in prisons, jails, and juvenile and immigration detention centers in the world. The racial and ethnic disparities of those incarcerated in the country are stark.

Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as White men. Hispanic men are 2.7 times as likely. Native American people are incarcerated over twice the rate for White people. One in two Black transgender people has been to prison. While the number of men incarcerated still exceeds the number of women incarcerated, Black women are the fastest growing population in prisons and jails.

Along with the numbers and explicit racism, the economic statistics also are striking, with 57 percent for men and 72 percent for women in the imprisoned population living in poverty prior to being arrested, despite a national poverty rate of 11.8 percent.

The racist and economic inequalities can be found not only in prisons, jails, and detention centers, but also the entire criminal justice system, with the most brutal example being found in the disparate rates for police killings of Black and Hispanic individuals versus White individuals.

Yet, despite these statistics, many people in the United States have remained far from shocked and dismayed about discriminations within the criminal justice system. Instead, large swathes of the population—particularly those not directly impacted—have for decades treated prisons and policing as well as the racial and economic inequalities of the criminal justice system as normal or even natural.

If the Leader Only Knew, from the “Punctum” series, 2014

Hank Willis Thomas’ sculpture, If the Leader Only Knew, depicts the hands of children holding into a barbed wire fence. With the small hands cast in bronze and extending from the wall, the piece is monumental yet fragmented and anonymous. Thomas based these hands on an image of children in a Nazi concentration camp. However, without knowing that context, they could be the hands of children in one of the U.S. detention centers today. Or, they could also be evocative of the millions of people held in the nation’s prisons and jail.

If the Leader Only Knew is an uncomfortable reference to the plausible deniability often granted to leaders overseeing atrocities. It is often easy to wonder if perhaps the elected leadership of the U.S. government, as well as many citizens, are not aware of the injustices and violences that take place in our courts, our police departments, and our prisons. Many of us want to believe that if people, both those in leadership and those who support them, only knew and understood they would instigate change. But, how could they not know? And, if they do indeed know, this means the inequalities, inhumanities, and injustices of our nation’s prisons, jails, and detention centers are the system functioning exactly as planned.

Thomas’ sculpture also asks us to interrogate our own relationship with knowledge and deniability. How much do we as a society refuse to see? What gets in the way of many people acknowledging the truth of what is happening? How does our participation or lack of participation in electoral politics relate to this dynamic? And in whose name or for whose best interests do these abuses take place?

This website, as well as the exhibition, public art project, and events are organized in response to these ideas of seeing and knowing in relationship to the injustices of our system of policing and prisons. We ask:

Using the Study Guides

These study guides delve into four of the main themes present in Barring Freedom : the histories that structure our current system of incarceration and policing; the ways the carceral state shapes our vision of the world; bridging the distance between inside and outside the prison; and imagining possible abolitionist futures.

We intend these resources as pathways through the artworks and artist interviews, available for anyone interested in thinking critically about prisons and policing. We believe that art—and the forms of poetic, nonlinear thinking that it encourages—can open up the issues in novel ways, offering a compelling route into challenging topics of discussion.

Each study guide contains a selection of artworks and short clips from the artist interviews that we thought exemplified the theme, as well as quotes from selected key readings and links to other relevant artworks from the exhibition. There are questions throughout to encourage reflection and at the bottom of the guides are suggested further readings and resources.

The index of keywords can be used to navigate amongst the artworks, independent of the study guides, showing other connections and providing different modes of entry from the four themes we have highlighted.

For Students

Each study guide introduces you to a range of artists and artworks as well as articles and books that delve more deeply into the themes discussed. The study guides are structured around broad questions and include places for you to pause and reflect. We hope you will find an artist or artwork that intrigues you and follow your curiosity into the wealth of materials available.

For Instructors

We hope the study guides will be used by instructors across disciplines who are interested in integrating visual art into their teaching. The study guide text and videos could be assigned as asynchronous material along with one or more of the cited readings, while the questions throughout the guides could be used for live discussions. For instructors at UC Santa Cruz who would like further assistance in integrating these materials into your course, please contact If you develop a teaching activity based upon these materials, please let us know; we would love to hear how these contribute to teaching and learning on campus.

Cited Sources

  1. Daniel, Roxane. “Since You Asked: What Data Exists about Native American People in the Criminal Justice System?” Prison Policy Initiative, April 22, 2020.
  2. Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories, 2003.
  3. “Incarcerated Women and Girls.” Sentencing Project, June 2019.
  4. Lambda Legal. “Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis.”
  5. O’Neill Hayes, Tara, and Margaret Barnhorst. “Incarceration and Poverty in the United States.” American Action Forum, June 30, 2020.
  6. “Trends in U.S. Corrections.” The Sentencing Project, August 2020.
  7. Statista. “Police Shootings: Rate by Ethnicity U.S. 2015-2020,” October 5, 2020.