Letters from Prison

We live in the era of mass incarceration. The United States has the largest number of incarcerated people of any nation in the world, almost twice as many as the next highest population in China. This number has risen exponentially over the past decades. In 1980, the total prison population was 329,000 people; in 2017, it was well over 2 million. American communities are are not equally affected by mass incarceration. The U.S. imprisons more of its racial and ethnic minorities than any other country; it imprisons more of its black population than South Africa during apartheid.

Statistics aside, what does it mean to a human being to be imprisoned? This exhibit draws together letters written by incarcerated people, across time and space. The centerpiece and inspiration for the exhibit is the collected letters of Chris Vega to his brother. Mr. Vega has been imprisoned by the Illinois Department of Corrections almost continuously since 2007. Juxtaposed with Mr. Vega’s letters and poems are published works written by or for incarcerated people, from the collection at the University of Chicago Library.

Personal details about the authors, in particular the reason for conviction, are purposefully absent. The goal of the exhibit is to show a cross-section of the human experience and to set aside judgment for empathy.

Vega collection

Vega, Christopher. Personal letters written by Christopher Vega to his family. 2007-2018. (Do not use without permission of author.)

Folder of collected letters of Chris Vega to his brother. On loan from Vega family for the physical exhibit.

We inhabit, study, and work in the land of the Peoria, Miami, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi Nations. These lands were the home of these Native Nations prior to their forced removal and relocation. These lands continue to be embedded with the rich histories and struggles for survival of each nation.

UChicago does not exist independently from centuries of forced labor and economic extraction from enslaved African Americans. In 1857, Stephen A. Douglas donated 10 acres of land (valued today at approximately $1.2 million) for the initial construction of the University of Chicago. Though most of history remembers Douglas for his political career, the humans that he owned and amassed his fortune from have a starkly different recollection.

Written by Symphony Fletcher (Pritzker School of Medicine M.D. Candidate 2024) for "UC Juneteenth 2021: Reparations Panel." Learn more about Land and Labor Acknowledgments.