Justin Christopher sits outside of Campbell Hall. He has no paper in hand, no exact verse in mind. His lips move silently, forming what will eventually become “The American Dream of Captivity,” a spoken-word piece that explores his past as a previously incarcerated man.
The African American studies graduate student will perform this piece Monday for the event A Poetry Slam Prison Benefit: In Support of the Prison Book Drive For Women Incarcerated at the California Institution for Women Prison at the James Bridges Theater. Christopher hopes to deconstruct the stigma surrounding criminal conviction and provide students with information about the criminal justice system. He is a co-founder of the Justice Work Group, an on-campus organization hosting the poetry slam.
At the benefit, three undergraduate students and two graduate students will perform their poems before a panel of four judges, all previously incarcerated women. The Justice Work Group chose these women to recognize the possibilities of life after prison and foster a community dialogue with those directly impacted by mass incarceration.
The winner of the event will perform their poems before the women of the California Institution for Women. The night aims to engage female inmates through access to literature and student activism with poetry.
The Justice Work Group works under the instruction of social activist and UCLA African American studies professor Bryonn Bain. The organization has developed a space for students to organize and discuss different methods of social justice, said Danielle Dupuy, a graduate student in community health sciences and co-founder of the Justice Work Group.
“We wanted a space at UCLA to dialogue about issues of justice and see what actions we could take,” Dupuy said.
The poetry slam arose from influences of Bain’s research within the California Institution for Women’s advisory group.
Society often sees incarceration as a male issue, but incarcerated women are also a vulnerable population, Christopher said.
“We want to bring awareness,” Christopher said. “By addressing women, we allow those who are impacted to mobilize in transformative ways.”
Bain has since created a prison education program instituting academic courses for inmates to earn degrees. The group reached out to women in the California Institution to provide them with resources they need to educate themselves and others, Dupuy said.
“Formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people will never truly be free until we, as faculty and students, change the way we view the bubble we live in,” Christopher said.
Bain’s research surveyed inmates at the California Institution for Women, who overwhelmingly requested book donations to better stock the prison library. The Justice Work Group saw the opportunity to promote a relationship between students and the prison.
In addition to the poetry slam, the Justice Work Group has been conducting a book drive to donate literature to the prison. The poetry slam’s admission fee is the donation of one book.
Lauren Jones, a third-year geography and African American studies student, will be emceeing the event. Her work in the Justice Work Group has led her to discover the importance of incorporating student creativity into social justice.
“These women should not be marginalized. They are real people and have voices,” Jones said. “Art and activism are about learning, they’re about resisting. But they’re also about producing.”