The Mellon Foundation has announced a $125 million commitment to support artistic development among populations detrimentally affected by the U.S. criminal legal system. In a February 15 press release, the Foundation said its multiyear Imagining Freedom grant initiative will support "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 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 Mellon president Elizabeth Alexander. “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.”

Imagining Freedom is a part of the Foundation’s core Presidential Initiatives and "exemplifies Mellon’s vision to create just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking." Putting the initiative in context, the foundation shared that "more than 70 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."

Out of nearly 2 million people who are currently incarcerated, more than half of them are Black and/or Latinx, the Foundation shared. Additionally incarceration rates for Native American people are nearly four times that of white populations.

"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," shared Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood in the Imagining Freedom announcement. Fleetwood is the creator of the multi-platform art initiative in response to the carceral system, Marking Time, and a grantee of Imagining Freedom.

She added, "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."

According to the Foundation, additional 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.

Grants awarded through Imagining Freedom so far total over $41 million in funding. For more information about Imagining Freedom, visit