Whose experiences are left out of the conversation about mass incarceration? How do we address topics of oppression, confinement, and racial and political violence in the United States? Artist James “Yaya” Hough and members of Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee discuss using art as an organizing and educational tool to shift cultural understandings around harm, healing, justice, and abolition.
James “Yaya” Hough has been heavily involved for more than a decade with Mural Arts Philadelphia, creating more than 50 works that have been installed at the State Correctional Institution–Graterford and the State Correctional Institution–Phoenix. In 2019, as part of a program supported by the Art for Justice Fund and Fair and Just Prosecution, Hough was selected to be the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia. His work was included in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood, which opened at MoMA PS1, New York, and traveled to the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, Birmingham, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati.
Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee (founded 2013, Pittsburgh, PA) is a group working to end perpetual punishment, build a pathway out of the prisons back to our communities through commutation reform, support successful possibilities for people formerly and currently incarcerated, and shift to a culture of transformative justice. The group was formed when Avis Lee, Charmaine Pfender, Donna Hill, and etta cetera all participated in One Billion Rising, a global day of action to end violence against women. Lee and Pfender, who are both serving life without parole sentences, have each spent over thirty years incarcerated for situations that occurred when they were in their late teens. Let’s Get Free prioritizes working with women and trans prisoners, whose experiences are often left out in conversations about mass incarceration; works to build relationships and community across prison walls; is guided by people in prison; uses art as an organizing tool; and educates to shift cultural understandings around harm, healing, and justice. The group has expanded its community on both sides of the walls through its prison visiting program, Operation Break Bread, regular newsletters, annual art show, community events, participation in the statewide Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, and persistent pressure challenging the outdated and dysfunctional commutation process in Pennsylvania. Motivated by an ethos of reducing harm and violence, Let’s Get Free is committed to bringing people home.