a detailed image of the artwork Purgatory, created by artist Jesse Krimes

Imagining Freedom

Countering the criminal legal system’s forces of dehumanization, isolation, and separation

Through Imagining Freedom, the Mellon Foundation supports artistic, cultural, and humanistic work that centers the voices and knowledge of people directly affected by the US criminal legal system—recognizing their full humanity, ensuring a broad public history and primary source record of mass incarceration, deepening our shared understanding of the system and its impacts, catalyzing us to address the damage it causes, and helping us to challenge and reenvision the structures now in place, so we can all forge new paths toward justice.

The American carceral state is vast, far-reaching, and disproportionately harmful to communities of color and people living in poverty. Nearly half of all American adults have a relative who has spent time in jail or prison; and about twenty percent of children have a parent who is or has been incarcerated. More than half of the nearly two million people who are currently inside are Black and/or Latine, and incarceration rates for Native people are nearly four times that of their white counterparts. This state of affairs is not an accident; the criminal legal system is inextricably linked with the history of the United States—from the earliest days of native conquest and enslavement to the more recent so-called “wars” on crime and drugs and entrenched racial violence—and has powerfully shaped its present.

The system dehumanizes, silences, and isolates the tens of millions of people whose lives it touches. By design, it systematically prevents them from leading full civic, creative, and intellectual lives and deprives the public of their voices and perspectives. 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. The arts and humanities uniquely and powerfully counter some of the most enduring and least seen impacts of mass incarceration.

 Through our grantmaking we seek to:

  • Advance the participation of system-impacted artists, writers, storytellers, and scholars in intellectual and imaginative communities within and beyond carceral spaces.
  • Support the creation and public circulation of new bodies of scholarly, archival, artistic, and other cultural work that examines our carceral structures and their effect on human dignity and helps us imagine and begin to build just communities.
  • Broaden access to the liberatory power of literature, knowledge, and humanities-based higher learning in order to foster a sense of possibility for currently or formerly incarcerated people.
  • Make visible the ways the criminal legal system impacts the families, loved ones, and broader communities of those directly entangled in it—before, during, and after their carceral experiences.

Our focus on the criminal legal system builds on the work of scholars, activists, and artists who for decades have been theorizing, making visible, and challenging its structural racism, dehumanization, othering, and related failures of justice.

Top photo: Jesse Krimes: “Purgatory” (detail), 2009. Image transfers, prison-issued soap, toothpaste, playing cards. Artwork © Jesse Krimes 


Please submit any inquiries to the Initiative through Fluxx, the Foundation’s Grants Portal.

C01AA8F2-C27F-4F64-AD65-A06A41330DF7Created with sketchtool.
Sign up below to receive emails from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation. By doing so you agree to our Privacy Policy.
Send me information about (check as many as apply)