Mellon Foundation Announces Imagining Freedom, An Arts & Humanities Initiative Supporting Creatives and Thinkers Reenvisioning the Criminal Legal System

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Mellon Foundation Announces Imagining Freedom, An Arts & Humanities Initiative Supporting Creatives and Thinkers Reenvisioning the Criminal Legal System

(NEW YORK, NY — February 15, 2022)—The Mellon Foundation today announced Imagining Freedom—a $125 million, multiyear grantmaking initiative supporting arts and humanities organizations that engage the knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity of millions of people and communities with lived experience of the US criminal legal system and its pervasive forces of dehumanization, stereotyping, and silencing. As one of the Foundation’s core Presidential Initiatives, Imagining Freedom exemplifies Mellon’s vision to create just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking.  

The American “carceral state”—incarceration and its related processes of policing, prosecution, and probation, among others—is vast, far-reaching, and disproportionately harms communities of color and those living in poverty. The US is the most incarcerated country in the world: more than seventy million people in the US have been arrested, prosecuted, or convicted of a crime; nearly half of all Americans have a relative who has been incarcerated; and nearly one in five US children have a currently or formerly incarcerated parent.  

More than half of the nearly two million people who are currently incarcerated are Black and/or Latinx, and incarceration rates for Native people are nearly four times that of their white counterparts. This state of affairs is historically determined; the criminal legal system is inextricably linked with the history of the United States, from the earliest days of native conquest and enslavement to ongoing and entrenched structural discrimination and racial violence, and has powerfully shaped its present.  

“As artists, writers, and scholars working inside and outside of prison have long known, the arts and humanities uniquely and powerfully counter some of the most enduring, far-reaching, and least seen impacts of mass incarceration in our country and on its individuals and communities,” said Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation. “Through Imagining Freedom, we are supporting artistic, cultural, and humanistic work that centers the voices and knowledge of people directly affected by the carceral system—recognizing their full humanity, deepening our shared understanding of the system and its effects, catalyzing us to address the damage it causes, and envisioning and enacting just responses to harm. We cannot understand who we are as a country if we don’t listen to all of the voices that make up our interdependent communities.” 

At the core of Imagining Freedom is a commitment to supporting artists, writers, thinkers, humanists, memory workers, and storytellers whose lives have been impacted by the criminal legal system, as well as those working to bridge carceral and non-carceral spaces, foster connections between people, and bring together broader intellectual and imaginative communities. Grantees range from large institutions to nascent organizations, and span geographies, generations, and disciplines. 

Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood is the creator of grantee Marking Time, a multi-platform initiative focused on art that responds broadly to the carceral state. She notes, “The Mellon Foundation, under the brilliant leadership of Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, understands the critical importance of supporting projects that both document the devastating histories and intricacies of the US carceral state and those that also create future visions, through the arts and humanities, of a society that does not rely on punitive governance and the captivity of its most vulnerable populations. It is an honor to be among the grantees and in community with the Mellon Foundation and its other recipients to imagine and enact a practice of freedom that frees us all.”  

Other Imagining Freedom grantees include:  

  • The Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, which will continue to promote the education and empowerment of formerly incarcerated people across the country through collective community and action.
  • Freedom Reads, envisioned and led by poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts and launched with over $5 million in Mellon funding in June 2020, which is putting 500-book libraries in every prison in the United States.
  • Interrupting Criminalization, which will use the funding to support several ongoing storytelling, publishing, and arts-based projects led by Mariame Kaba.  
  • The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative’s Flashlights Project, which will create a public digital archive to make visible the experiences of incarcerated justice advocates.
  • The Million Dollar Hoods project at the University of California Los Angeles, led by historian Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, which seeks to archive historical documents, oral histories, and ephemera in order to chronicle the many impacts of policing and mass incarceration in Los Angeles. 
  • The New York Public Library, which is expanding reference-by-mail services for incarcerated people, and the San Francisco Public Library (in partnership with the American Library Association), which is cataloging and growing the often-scant library services available in prison.
  • Rikers Public Memory Project, a community-based, participatory initiative to document the experiences of those who have been directly impacted by Rikers Island.  

Through these grants and others, totaling over $41 million in funding thus far, Imagining Freedom is supporting work to ensure a broad public history and primary source record of mass incarceration and its impacts. By uplifting the often-overlooked perspectives and voices of those impacted by the criminal legal system, Imagining Freedom aims to help both individuals and communities challenge and re-envision the systems now in place, so we can all forge new paths toward justice. 

About The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive. Learn more at

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