Harvard Defenders’ Litman Symposium shines a spotlight on incarcerated artists

We wanted people to tell us about their humanity, and about the way that the incarceration experience changed them,” says Déborah Aléxis ‘25. This April, she and fellow student Apoorva Dixit ‘24 organized the Jack T. Litman Symposium through the student practice organization Harvard Defenders.

The two spearheaded the revival of the Litman Symposium, an initiative funded by a grant aimed at amplifying perspectives often unheard within the legal education landscape. Their vision was to provide a platform for formerly and currently incarcerated individuals to share their stories through artwork.

Centering the directly impacted

For Aléxis and Dixit, the symposium represented an opportunity to reframe how conversations surrounding the criminal legal system are conducted. “In the zeitgeist right now, we talk a lot about police reform or abolition or taking down the system,” Aléxis explains. “But I think for many people who have been impacted by incarceration, whether they themselves have been or their family members have been, they have a more experience-based understanding of what’s actually happening within the criminal legal system. It’s important to consider them.” She adds, “being in school, our exposure to critiques of the criminal legal system is primarily academic, which can distance us from the visceral experience within these systems. The symposium was a way to help us cross that distance, directly face, and deeply engage with the effects of incarceration.”

By featuring artists who had experienced incarceration firsthand, the organizers sought to underscore the humanity often overlooked in academic and policy discussions. “It was a way for us, as the Defenders committee, to de-center ourselves and instead say, ‘These are the people we serve, let’s listen to them. Let’s give them the stage,’” Aléxis says.

The curation process involved tapping into networks both local and distant. They partnered with Professor Adriaan Lanni, who engages in restorative justice work in Massachusetts with the Transformational Prison Project, which connected them to Eric Anderson, a formerly incarcerated artist and Board Member of Justice4Housing, a Boston-based housing justice and anti-carceral organization. A serendipitous encounter with a Defenders alumnus introduced them to Mollie Hosmer-Dillard, an artist teaching in Utah correctional facilities who shared her students’ powerful works.

Acclaimed artist Mark Loughney, known for his “Pyrrhic Defeat” series – a collection of hundreds of sketches depicting the faces of individuals he encountered while incarcerated – joined the symposium lineup after Dixit completed an independent clinical in a criminal defense nonprofit office where his art hung in the conference room. “Every day I would find a new face to observe and be impressed by, and I decided right then and there that one way or the other, I was going to get Mark to Harvard,” she recounts.

A transformative experience 

As the day unfolded, the symposium’s impact reverberated through the Harvard community. Dixit vividly recalls the flood of supportive messages in the Defenders group chat, expressing gratitude for the tireless behind-the-scenes efforts. “It was beautiful to see people show up for us,” Aléxis adds. “I was ready to cry over every single person that walked in the room.”

For Dixit, certain moments crystallized the symposium’s significance. During Loughney’s workshop, she witnessed him sketch an attendee’s portrait while fielding insightful questions about his creative process and experiences behind bars. “It was exactly the kind of conversation that I had hoped for,” she says.

The culminating workshop, facilitated by Hosmer-Dillard, proved particularly poignant. Participants, including the organizers, contributed to a collective art piece initiated by Hosmer-Dillard’s incarcerated students. “There was something so necessary and nice about just sitting there and painting at the end of the day, after having this powerful day,” reflects Dixit.

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