Social Justice: Empowering the Incarcerated through Education

You are invited to a free webinar, Social Justice: Empowering the Incarcerated through Education, a thought-provoking discussion on social justice, art, and mass incarceration on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. (ET).

Register Now

The event is hosted by Union doctoral faculty members, Dr. Anu Mitra and Dr. Diane Allerdyce. Featured guest is Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, faculty director of California State University, Los Angeles Bachelor of Arts program. Dr. Roy and Taffany Lim, senior director of the Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good, initiated the first in-person degree program at Los Angeles County Prison, which has now expanded to California Institute for Women.

They founded Words Uncaged and Paws For Life programs, as a result of their work with the incarcerated.

Words Uncaged is a platform for the incarcerated to explore creativity through art, narrative therapy and writing. As a result of their work, two books have been published by students in the program: “Man, I Wish We Would Have Known: Letters from Calipatria State Prison” and “Disconnected/Reconnected: Writing from Lancaster Prison.” In addition, examples of writings, poetry, and visual art are displayed on the website. Words Uncaged currently has chapters operating in Donovan, Calipatria, and San Quentin State Prison.

Dr. Roy reflects, “When I first visited California State Prison, Lancaster, what I saw there were not prisoners, but cages filled of hundreds of lights – lights of knowledge, wisdom, compassion, love, insight and remorse. It was as if hundreds of candles had been locked in a distant closet, or that the stars had been hidden behind the blanket of the desert night, denying us the light that they had to shine upon the world. I was struck by the desire of the men to learn and their thirst for meaningful intellectual engagement with someone from outside the walls. There was a palpable desire for a critical awareness of their context and a reminder that education only needs a desire to learn and an object of study. All the classrooms, degrees and institutions of education mean nothing without this desire to learn and be open to the transformation that new ideas can bring.”

Dr. Roy has made the following observation about his work with the incarcerated.

“The thing that has surprised me most, is that those who commit violent acts have often been the victims of violent acts in the past. So many young men who end up joining gangs or committing murder have experienced molestation, gun violence, or others forms of abuse as children. The idea that there is an easily distinguished category between ‘criminal” and “victim” does not hold after you have spent a lot of time in prisons. Rather, what becomes evident is that “hurt people, hurt people” and “healed people, heal people.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the annual cost of mass incarceration in the United States to the taxpayer is $81 billion. (Source: Equal Justice Initiative)

“Prisons reflect how we respond to harm caused in our world and reveals a lot about how we view our fellow human beings. On the broadest level, if we can only imagine a punitive response to crime, then we simply perpetuate harm, violence, and trauma. From an ethical perspective, this is not the sort of world I want to support as a taxpayer,” said Dr. Roy. “But from a narrower, budgetary perspective, it means that our current system of mass incarceration creates more problems than it solves and, in so doing, creates more expense for the taxpayer. We should care about incarcerated men and women because they are our fellow human beings – our brothers and sisters. But we should also care about them because they are hidden assets in our community that can help solve the problems in our communities more cost-effectively than our current systems can. I can’t have any influence on a 16-year-old gang member following a path of violence, but a former gang member, transformed and released from prison can. Wouldn’t it be better for our taxes to support this process than to build more prisons?”

“Museums offer a unique role to educate and explore issues of equity, inclusion, diversity, and reconciliation,” says Dr. Mitra, faculty in Union’s Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies Program and certificate facilitator in Design Thinking and Museum Studies. “Museums have the power to educate, empower and inspire. They are cultural and community institutions and can play a pivotal role in social justice by exhibiting art and collections of under-represented artists of a variety of societal groups and modes of artistic expression.”

Union Institute & University’s Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies focuses on the importance of developing new problem-solving skills through visual cognitive skills, as well as developing novel social justice theories through the lens of art – and even leadership principles through visual culture. For example, recent Ph.D. graduate Dr. Tamara White is creating informative art exhibitions to heighten awareness about diabetes and incarceration for the purpose of creating policy changes in prison medical protocols. She is also using her expertise in tandem with Dr. Roy to create new opportunities for incarcerated artists.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), whose mission is to champion museums and nurture excellence, reflects Dr. Mitra’s beliefs. In its strategic plan, the organization urges members to focus on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in all aspects of museum structure and programming for the sustainability of museums.” (Source: AAM)

Featured Guest:

Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, faculty director of California State University, Los Angeles Bachelor of Arts program, and a professor in the Department of English.


Dr. Anu Mitra is faculty in Union’s Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies Program and certificate facilitator in Design Thinking and Museum Studies.

Dr. Diane Allerdyce is chair and faculty of the Humanities & Culture (HMS) concentration of the Ph.D. program in Interdisciplinary Studies.

Register today for Social Justice: Empowering the Incarcerated through Education, a free webinar focused on social justice, art, and mass incarceration, streaming live on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 8:00 p.m.

Photo Credit: Emilio Flores, Cal State