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Join the Mass Incarceration Working Group as we welcome historian Dan Berger and activist Clifton “Skye” Williamson to discuss the current conditions within jails and prisons, how the impact of COVID-19 informs prison organizing, and abolition as an obligation to those most vulnerable. This is the second event in the Mass Incarceration Working Group discussion series “More Beautiful and More Terrible: Prison Organizing and Abolition in Unsettled Times.”

Dan Berger 
is an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical race theory, twentieth-century U.S. social movements, and critical prison studies. His research pursues a human accounting of how freedom and violence have shaped the United States in the twentieth century and continue to influence the world. Much of his work concerns the carceral state, including the diverse ways in which imprisonment has shaped social movements, racism, and American politics since World War II. An associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington–Bothell, Berger curates the Washington Prison History Project, a digital archive of prisoner activism and prison policy in Washington state. Berger is the author, co-author, or editor of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, Rethinking the American Prison Movement with Toussaint Losier, and Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001. He is currently writing a book about the modern Black Freedom Struggle for Basic Books.

Clifton “Skye” Williamson spent the last fifteen years of his twenty-five years in New York State prison as an activist, operating inside our criminal injustice system. As an activist behind the wall, Skye worked in subversive defiance of the prison’s culture of sabotaging the establishment and growth of programs capable of actually improving and saving the lives of incarcerated people. Skye forged collaborative alliances with individuals, groups, and organizations to realize his vision to implement rehabilitation projects that empowered incarcerated human beings to be agents of their own transformations. His projects have included GED tutoring, the Phoenix Players—an empathy-based theater group—and trauma and wellness workshops. Additionally, Skye co-founded a not-for-profit mentorship organization. While incarcerated, Skye was a student in Cornell University’s CPEP and Bard College’s BPI, both higher education programs. He earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and continued his education in computer science. Skye was granted executive clemency by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, and was released on February 1, 2021. The recipient of an activist grant upon his release, Skye is presently expanding his organization’s capacity to serve the needs of incarcerated men and women while also beginning his work as a decarceration strategist.

About the Series:
The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought untold suffering onto incarcerated people and their loved ones. Those in prisons, jails, and detention centers are made vulnerable to illness and for many, these circumstances have made the past year one of mourning and revelation.  

These pressing conditions challenge those who dream and struggle for a society free of domination and control to ask themselves, What do prison organizing and abolition mean right now? How might we draw on history to meet this moment? What new strategies or knowledge have been developed, or can be developed, to push forward an abolitionist future?
Over the winter and spring, the Mass Incarceration Working Group at UChicago will host a series of “teach-ins” with activists and scholars across the country to tackle these very questions. Curated by Human Rights Lab Graduate Fellow David Knight, this series will proceed from the standpoint that abolition, to echo the words of Dylan Rodriguez, is a project of “collective genius,” an obligation to our ancestors and to future generations.

Presented by the Mass Incarceration Working Group convened by the Pozen Center Human Rights Lab and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.