Human Rights Lab Fall Recap

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” - Gwendolyn Brooks 

This fall, the Human Rights Lab has been engaged in building community and human rights practices that center the lived experience and knowledge of people who have been directly impacted by the prison system. Through our events and initiatives, we have been grappling with the crisis of mass incarceration and criminalization as we challenge ourselves to imagine new forms of justice, create platforms for truth-telling, and move beyond the punishment paradigm. Through it all, we continue to build a robust community that, in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks’s words, recognizes how our humanity is bound up with each other across classrooms, neighborhoods, and prison walls.


In early September, we organized the Institute on Memory and Human Rights for a cohort of 23 students, community leaders, torture survivors, and educators. We spent two days on campus participating in a series of workshops centered on the work of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, then traveled to Alabama to visit historic sites and interrogate the relationship between memory and human rights. 

In October, our newly-formed Mass Incarceration Working Group hosted scholar-activist Michelle Jones for a two-day residency to help us think critically about the relationship between the university and the prison, as well as strategies for reversing the school-to-prison pipeline

October also saw two great events presented by Pozen's Fall 2019 Visiting Professor Dean Spade: a Human Rights in Practice lunch in conversation with Professor Eric Stanley and a candy-fueled film screening of two radical queer/trans movies. We're sorry to see Dean go, and so grateful for his time with us.   

Then in November, former political prisoner and human rights activist Albert Woodfox was in conversation with Alice Kim, Director of Human Rights Practice, for the Pozen Center’s Fall 2019 Kirschner Lecture. He shared his personal story of survival and transformation to a riveted audience of over 400. During his visit, Woodfox also met with members of the Illinois Black Panther Party and the Mass Incarceration Working Group. 

Later in November, the Lab organized a special performance of Notes on Territory by artist Anna Martine Whitehead, who was joined by Patrick Purlsey (I Am Kid Culture), Damon Locks (Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project), and Leslie Buxbaum Danzig (Theater and Performance Studies) for a thought-provoking post-show conversation about prison architecture and the body. 

In December, we partnered with SSA Professor Yanilda González to host the second installment in the new What Justice Looks Like discussion series, Justice Delayed: Organizing Against Police Torture and Mass Incarceration, featuring a panel of five survivors of Chicago police torture. Each of the panelists shared their vision of justice through the lens of their individual and collective resistance to state violence. 

And finally as the quarter came to a close, a delegation of Lab undergraduate fellows, UChicago staff and faculty attended the Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration Conference at the University of Mississippi to consider the history of mass incarceration and the future of prison abolition.