Project Showcase: Prisons Today

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Prisons Today Image 2

Screenshot credit: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site recently launched Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the first major museum exhibit to tackle this civil rights issue.* Prisons Today asks open-ended questions and encourages dialogue among visitors about America’s past and present prison systems. 

After a three-year process of building relationships with and listening to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, corrections officers, activists, and policy makers, the exhibit team found consensus around the idea that the U.S. prison system is in dire need of reform. The exhibit opens with the statement: “mass incarceration isn’t working.”

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.2 million people in prison or jail. Prisons Today enables Eastern State to host a critical dialogue within the context of the world’s first true penitentiary–a place designed to inspire true regret, or penitence, in its inhabitants.

The historic site’s programming proceeds from the notion that the issues that inspired Eastern State’s founders are of pressing concern today: What does our society do with those who break the law? Why do some Americans encounter the criminal justice system frequently while others avoid the system altogether? The exhibit asks visitors to ponder the best balance among common prison objectives: rehabilitation, retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence.

Prisons Today seeks to build empathy among Eastern State’s largely white, middle-class visitors for those directly impacted by mass incarceration–a disproportionate number of whom are poor people of color. To that end, the exhibit features six short films by Gabriela Bulisova that put a human face on this crisis. One film spotlights a man named Phill, who is practicing restorative justice while serving life without parole. Another showcases a 12-year-old named Kiya whose father is incarcerated.

An interactive feature called “Early Experiences Matter” encourages visitors to reflect on how their race, class, education, role models, and exposure to violence or trauma affects their relationship to the criminal justice system. Another exhibit element destabilizes the boundary between “criminal” and “law-abiding citizen” by mixing the confessions of visitors to Eastern State with the confessions of currently incarcerated people.

Visitors can send a series of email postcards to their “future selves” that will arrive in their inboxes two months, one year, and three years after they visit Prisons Today. The postcards will remind visitors about their big exhibit takeaways while keeping them abreast of prison issues and policy changes. This “call to action” is meant to inspire reflection and to illustrate that change is both possible and necessary. Just as collective decision-making across the political spectrum introduced the current era of mass incarceration, collective action can re-orient the future of prisons and punishment.

For more information, please contact Annie Anderson, Senior Specialist for Research and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

*Curators developed Prisons Today at the same time the Humanities Action Lab and its partner institutions developed their current traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration.

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