Visualizing Abolition Studies certificate program launches this spring at UCSC

UCSC is set to launch its Visualizing Abolition Studies (VAST) certificate program this spring, helping undergraduates examine and question how society understands and responds to mass incarceration, detention, and policing in the United States and abroad. 

“We are hoping the program will provide a deep immersion for students who perceive the violence of incarceration but feel disempowered and wonder what they can do to help create a cultural shift,” said UCSC Professor of Feminist Studies and Humanities Associate Dean Gina Dent, faculty organizer and faculty lead for the VAST program, which is housed within the Humanities Division. 

“The idea is to expose students to an interdisciplinary framework that centers art and visuality, helping to destabilize our relationship to a future with incarceration imagined inside of it,” Dent said. “The VAST program will draw from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to challenge the prevailing social, economic, and political worldview that prisons promote.” 

The VAST program will also explore what it means to use visual studies and aesthetics in ways that go far beyond the aesthetic presentation of data generated by criminologists and sociologists.“VAST will provide a strong critical framework to help students analyze how these materials are being presented,” Dent said. 

The overuse of data can reinforce entrenched ideas about prisons, Dent said. “As long as prisons have existed, people have been talking about reform versus abolition,” she said. “Just giving people more and more information about the harms caused by incarceration has never actually led to rethinking them systematically.” 

VAST is also designed to help students develop critical skills and workplace experience required to enter careers in the arts, teaching, legal work, the nonprofit sector, social work, and other professions. 

Island Gutierrez (Kresge, ‘25, Critical Race & Ethnic Studies) is excited about enrolling in the VAST program.  

Gutierrez has already taken the VAST intro course co-taught by Dent and Rachel Nelson, director of the Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS), who teaches in the History of Art and Visual Culture department. 

“The structure of VAST has the potential to introduce countless students to an entire world of art and struggle, a crossroads that so many of us never experience, let alone acknowledge,” Gutierrez said. 

The certificate program will build the groundwork for a “grounded, educated resistance” for students hoping to fight against oppression, Gutierrez said.

To complete the certificate program, VAST students will earn 15 credits by taking VAST-affiliated courses in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. The program will draw from disciplines including psychology to help students understand the ways in which prisons harm populations.  

 “The Arts and Humanities have a unique ability to bring about lasting and meaningful change,” said UCSC Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder. “With its strong interdisciplinary approach, the VAST program will disrupt the status quo, helping students imagine a world in which the carceral state no longer seems ‘normal’ or acceptable and where our undergraduates can build communities that help bring about reparative practices.”

A groundbreaking public scholarship initiative on campus

Dent is PI and Co-Director for Visualizing Abolition, a project designed to redirect social resources away from prisons by accessing the power of the arts.  The certificate program is an outgrowth of this ongoing public scholarship initiative conducted by Dent and Rachel Nelson, featuring artists, activists, scholars, and lawyers united in their commitment to prison abolition.

The initiative, undertaken through the IAS with a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, is designed to foster creative research and shift the social attachment to prisons through art and education. One of the initiative’s cornerstones is the Solitary Garden Project, a participatory public art installation built in 2019 on a slope at UCSC overlooking the Monterey Bay. 

Solitary Garden is a collaboration between Tim Young, who has been confined on death row in San Quentin for more than 20 years, New Orleans-based artist Jackie Sumell, and volunteers and interns with Visualizing Abolition.

Other aspects of the initiative are the “Barring Freedom” exhibition, which ran in 2020-21 at the San Jose Museum of Art, an online Visualizing Abolition speaker series, and several other exhibitions, at IAS, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Davenport Jail, and the San Jose Museum of Art, along with postdoctoral fellowships, graduate student research, artist residencies, and internships for incarcerated and system-impacted artists and scholars. 

In the winter of 2024, Nelson will teach “Introduction to Visualizing Abolition Studies.” Dent will also teach another Feminist Studies/VAST course, “Law, Prisons, and Popular Culture.”

The class explores why the proliferation of research on prisons demonstrating economic and racial disparities, as well as negative effects on individuals and communities, has not led to more substantial questioning of public policy that treats imprisonment as a major solution to social problems. The class also immerses students in artistic practices that challenge law and social policy.

Students who have already taken the introductory class speak of its transformative impact. 

“This is an invaluable course that really made me reflect on the ways in which the prison industrial complex is reproduced on both a systemic and personal level,” said Max Sárosi (Kresge, ‘24, Agroecology and CRES). “After reading many essays on surveillance, visuality, power, and policing, as well as analyzing brilliant works of art crafted around these subjects, I began to understand what Professor Dent meant by ‘the State is within us.”’ 

“In other words, our carceral state has made it so we are all both onlookers and active participants in the reproduction of the prison,” Sárosi said.  

“This idea that we as individuals are helping to hold up the prison industrial complex was a critical learning for me because it complicated and further nuanced my understanding of how our carceral state functions and thus how it might be undone,”  Sárosi continued. “If we comprise the system, then we can sure as hell abolish it.”

Faculty and students, including Dent and Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Angela Y. Davis, helped launch the Critical Resistance movement, which is now a nonprofit organization advocating for prison abolition and better conditions inside prison walls. 

They helped organize the first Critical Resistance conference in 1998, which, according to Dent, is often characterized as the beginning of a new generation’s activism against the U.S. prison system.

Dent’s honors for her teaching include the Dizikes Faculty Teaching Award in 2019. She received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2007 and the Chancellor’s Innovator of the Year award this year for her research.  She is also the editor of Black Popular Culture [1993] New York: The New Press, 1998) and has written numerous articles on race, feminism, popular culture, and visual art. 

Her recent projects grew out of her decades-long work as an advocate for prison abolition, resulting in such publications as Abolition. Feminism. Now (co-authored with Angela Davis, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie, Haymarket, 2022), and the in-progress works Visualizing Abolition (co-edited with Rachel Nelson) and Prison as a Border, on popular culture and the conditions of knowledge. 

“All of the (prison) abolition work has been inspired by the anti-slavery abolitionist cause,” Dent said. “It has always been our view that we could imagine a future without prisons if only we could draw on the way our ancestors imagined a world without slavery.”

“An Excellent Use Of Talents.” 

Distinguished Professor of Psychology Craig Haney, a VAST-affiliated faculty member, said the certificate program will make excellent use of the talents of UCSC faculty who are advancing the cause of social justice while shining a light on the trauma caused by prisons. The end result of the VAST program will provide greater intellectual resources for students who are seeking alternatives to half-baked reforms,” Haney said. 

Haney has spent much of his career studying what prisons do to incarcerated people, their families, communities, and larger society.

“After decades of the era of mass incarceration, the United States and other nations are poised to make fundamental, paradigm-altering change,” Haney said. “VAST will contribute intellectual momentum and passion to this movement, and our students will have opportunities to be a central part of all of it.”

In his teaching for the VAST program, Haney will draw from his research on the psychological, social, familial, and societal consequences of mass incarceration for several decades, as well as his own real-world involvement in attempting to bring about meaningful prison change. 

His work has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court. Haney testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the perils of solitary confinement in 2012, and also testified before a panel charged with revising the state’s penal code in 2020. 

Haney already teaches a two-quarter sequence in psychology and law (PSYC/LGST 147A and 147B) in which prison-related issues are discussed at length, particularly in 147B. He is also developing and plans to teach an undergraduate course that focuses entirely on prison-related issues.

Documentary filmmaking: bearing witness and fighting injustice

Among the other VAST class offerings are Prison Narratives, taught by former IAS Program Manager Luke A. Fidler, and “Reasonable Doubts: Making An Exoneree,” co-taught by Sharon Daniel, in which students learn and make use of documentary filmmaking techniques, as well as websites and social media campaigns, to make the case for a wrongfully convicted prisoner’s innocence. 

Daniel teaches the course with Georgetown professor Marc Howard and his childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, distinguished visiting professor at Georgetown, who was himself wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for almost 17 years before being exonerated and released. Howard and Tankleff originated the course at Georgetown. 

“Making An Exoneree” at UCSC grew out of Daniel’s close collaboration with Tim Young, a Black death-row prisoner at San Quentin State Prison. 

Young is the “solitary gardener” for the Solitary Garden Project. The sculpture follows the blueprint of a 6’x9’ U.S. solitary confinement cell similar to the one that Young has been confined in for more than two decades. 

Daniel was introduced to Young through that art project, and Young later contributed extensively to Daniel’s Exposed, which documented the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails across the country from the perspective of incarcerated people.

“In the course of my conversations with Tim about the spread of covid in San Quentin for Exposed, I became convinced of his innocence,” Daniel said. “With Tim’s permission, I gained access to the transcripts of his trial (over 11,000 pages), attorney’s notes, and other documents that provided a shocking account of an investigation and prosecution riddled with racist abuses.”

“Tim’s wrongful conviction depended on police misconduct including suborning the false testimony of a jailhouse informant, witness intimidation, and evidence tampering, prosecutorial misconduct (withholding exculpatory evidence), racial bias in jury selection, and judicial abuse of discretion,” Daniel continued.

In the winter and spring quarters of 2022, UCSC Film & Digital Media undergraduate students worked in small teams with undergraduate students at Georgetown to re-investigate and document five cases including Young’s.

“The (VAST program) provides a curricular home for courses like Making an Exoneree at UCSC, which allows students to participate in an experimental interdisciplinary education practicum that creates a space for reform, education, and activism,” Daniel said. “Through their participation in the course, VAST students will help further the efforts of wrongly convicted individuals and their families in their search for actual justice, while reinventing how the arts and art students’ classroom experiences are utilized to engage with the pressing issues of our time.”

The list of VAST-affiliated faculty shows a commitment to cross-divisional collaboration. 

That faculty, in addition to professors Dent, Daniel, and Haney, includes Assistant Professor of Black Studies in the Critical Race And Ethnic Studies (CRES) Department Sophia Azeb, Assistant Professor of Environmental Art Jorge Menna Barreto, Assistant Professor of Social Design Cláudio Bueno, Assistant Professor of Film & Digital Media Joseph Erb, Associate Professor of Anthropology Mayanthi Fernando, Professor of Art and Visual Culture Jennifer González, Associate Professor of Sociology Camilla Hawthorne, Distinguished Professor of Art Isaac Julien, Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies Caitlin Keliiaa, Professor of Film & Digital Media John Jota Leaños, Professor of Art Laurie Palmer, Associate Professor of Anthropology Savannah Shange, Assistant Professor of Music James Gordon Williams, and Professor of Literature Ronaldo Wilson.

Visit the VAST website for more information on the certificate program. 

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