Poetry is about understanding the past, recognizing where we are now, and re-imagining the future.

“It really is poetry and art that takes us to another place,” said UC Santa Cruz social psychology professor Craig Haney, “and in this criminal justice system,…another place is exactly where we need our mind to go.”

Haney sat down with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts for the “Prisons and Poetics” virtual event on  Jan. 26. The conversation explored the critical role of the arts in understanding abolition and the failures of America’s prison system. 

“Prison and Poetics” was an installment of the Visualizing Abolition series co-hosted by The Humanities Institute and Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS) at UCSC. The virtual event, featuring a poetry reading from Betts alongside conversation and audience questions, highlighted the destructive nature of imprisonment in the U.S. and how arts and literature can educate the public while uplifting incarcerated individuals. 

“In a poem you can capture something of history and create something of a critique of a system… You can make it swing and make it musical,” Betts said during the event. “For me, part of what I’m doing is an extension of that…How do I have a robust conversation through literature about the system?”

Betts was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison at age 16. He is now 40 years old, an award-winning poet, activist, and teacher, with a degree from Yale Law school. Betts uses his poetry to give voice to incarcerated individuals and raise awareness about the inhumane treatment in the U.S. prison system.

The event was led by IAS director and UCSC History of Art and Visual Culture professor Dr. Rachel Nelson and UCSC feminist studies associate professor Gina Dent, who served as the moderator for the conversation. 

“The Institute of the Arts and Sciences’ mission is to think about how to create arts based programming that brings people together from across the campus and around their diverse interests,” said Nelson. “One of the nice things about art is you can bump up against an idea that you already have or something that you know, but you perceive it in a different way.”

Nelson has been working over the past two years with Dent to bring this series to life. With the onset of the pandemic, they converted the planned two-day spring 2020 symposium into a yearlong virtual series starting in October 2020. 

The series is in collaboration with Barring Freedom, the IAS project regarding the role that the arts play in critically engaging with issues of prisons, policing, and justice in the United States. 

“Having creative artists engage in this enterprise with people like myself and others who are much closer to the system as it is, is a really fertile collaboration,” said Haney. “Prisons, in a lot of ways, represent the absence of imagination in thinking about ways to do things differently and better.” 

For the past 40 years, Haney has worked closely with prisons and inmates to understand the psychological impacts of isolation from family and society. Haney said the conversation between him and Betts was enriched by their different disciplines because imagining change in the prison system requires multiple perspectives.

The Barring Freedom Project features:
– The Visualizing Abolition Virtual Series
–  Music for Abolition: includes curated videos and original songs
– “The Solitary Garden”: a participatory public art installation at UCSC
– An art exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art
– Online study guides exploring the themes of the project

The Visualizing Abolition series began in October of this year with a conversation with Angela Davis and UCSC associate professor of feminist studies Gina Dent. The series invites professors and artists to have open conversations about prison abolition and how to challenge the ideas and institutions that form the prison-industrial complex.

“Anyone who’s joining our series understands that the problems prisons purport to solve, it does not solve, and in fact it creates greater harms,” said Dent. “[‘Prisons and Poetics’] was an opportunity to think with poetry…We’re digging more deeply into the nuances of the relationships between how our visual culture is developed and what is happening inside of prisons, and how that could help people to see differently about the future.”

The Visualizing Abolition Series will continue on through May, with at least five more virtual events planned. The next event “Material and Memory” is on Feb. 9 with artist Sanford Biggers and UC Berkeley professor Leigh Raiford. More information about the series and the Barring Freedom projects can be found here.