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HomeMarketMellon Foundation’s $125 Million ‘Imagining Freedom’ Initiative Targets Human Toll of Incarceration

Mellon Foundation’s $125 Million ‘Imagining Freedom’ Initiative Targets Human Toll of Incarceration

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The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is committing US$125 million for arts and humanities organizations confronting the impact of mass incarceration.

The multiyear initiative, called Imagining Freedom, has already pledged US$41.2 million over the past three years, according to the announcement on Wednesday. Grant recipients range in size, location, and discipline.

Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander calls the scope of the initiative “very significant.” The goal is to envision and forge more just communities by centering the voices and knowledge of people directly affected by incarceration—and all that goes with it. That includes the related processes of policing, prosecution, and probation.

“These systems have very disparately negative effects on people of color and those living in poverty,” Alexander says.

More than half of the nearly 2 million people who are currently incarcerated or on probation or parole in the U.S. are Black and/or Latino, according to the Mellon announcement. Incarceration rates for Indigenous people are four times that of their white counterparts.

Imagining Freedom grants are for work that will help even the scales. They have gone to Marking Time, a multi-platform initiative focused on art that responds broadly to incarceration; Freedom Reads, a group led by poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts that is putting 500-book libraries in every prison in the U.S.; Rikers Public Memory Project, which documents first-hand experiences; and the Million Dollar Hoods project at the University of California Los Angeles, which chronicles impacts of policing and mass incarceration in the city.

A grant to the New York Public Library will expand reference-by-mail services for incarcerated people, while the San Francisco Public Library is using the money to improve library services available in prison. 

The four most recent Imagining Freedom recipients include Interrupting Criminalization, which seeks to reverse growing incarceration trends; the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative’s Flashlights Project, which illuminates the experiences of incarcerated women; the Study and Struggle group, which builds community across prison walls through education, and the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FICGN), which promotes education and empowerment of formerly imprisoned people.

FICGN has used the Imagining Freedom to expand its scope and capacity. 

“We’re a fairly new nonproft,” director Terrell Blount says. “The Mellon grant has the organization bringing on staff and diving into some priority activities.” 

The arts and humanities are unique in the ways they help build bridges and connect people. 

“They’re what we fund, they are what’s in our lane,” says Alexander, adding that they can “powerfully counter some of the most enduring, far-reaching, and least seen impacts of mass incarceration.” 


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