Museums Take Measures to Spotlight, Reduce Mass Incarceration

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison turned museum that spotlights the issue of mass incarceration using experiential and contemporary exhibits.
The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison turned museum that spotlights the issue of mass incarceration using experiential and contemporary exhibits.

By Christopher Zoukis

At a time when museums aim to become more active hubs in communities and are taking stances on social justice issues, some are using their spaces and voices to address the issue of mass incarceration, and as venues to implement new rehabilitation and alternative sentencing programs.

Many museums are also learning that it is no longer enough to present the past, but to frame the contemporary present within a larger historical context to encourage critical thinking.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is a former prison that has been turned into a historic landmark and museum. It presents permanent exhibitions and contemporary art installations that deal with the issue of mass incarceration. While they continue to offer historically based tours, including details on Al Capone and famous escapes, they are also kick-starting dialogue on important related issues that affect so many Americans, and inviting visitors to think critically. Their new exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration creates awareness and stimulates empathy,  — even aiming to cause some discomfort. This is done by presenting a variety of statistics and data, as well as presenting very personal stories. The exhibition spotlights numerous issues that exist with the current prison system.

From the Center For the Future of Museums blog:

“Visitors are forced to walk through one of two corridors, based on their willingness to admit if they’ve ever broken the law. Admitted lawbreakers are confronted with artist Troy Richards’ installation, asking if they see themselves as “criminals.”  He invites these visitors to leave written confessions. He also mixes visitor confessions with confessions from men in and women living in prison. Visitors try to guess which is which. They can’t.”

In 2014 the Eastern State Penitentiary also commissioned the building of a sculpture called The Big Graph — a 16-foot infographic demonstrating the enormous per-capita growth of the prison population, rates of incarceration in comparison to every other country, and information about capital punishment and racial disparity in the prison system.

Feedback from the museum’s board of directors and visitors has been positive, with 91 percent of visitors reporting they learned something thought provoking about the prison system. Positive online reviews of the exhibition laud the incorporation of contemporary elements that “encourage activism and engagement within the community, and hopefully bring more reflection about the government’s view.”

Beyond creating awareness about the issue of mass incarceration from history to the present, some museums are also taking an active role in rehabilitation and alternative sentencing. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has been implementing the RAISE (Responding to Art Involves Self Expression) program for 10 years, and it is considered one of the most effective programs offered through the Berkshire County Juvenile Probation Department, as well as being a positive experience for the museum and its staff.

This alternative sentencing program for juveniles aged 12-18 focuses on engagement with art in order to contemplate the human experience — both their own and throughout time; to engage in self-awareness and self-expression; and to develop a constructive sense of themselves and the larger world. The engagement in, and analysis of art, which is often a first for many of the youth, sets the ground work for discussions about each person’s crime, viewed from multiple perspectives, exploring context and the motivations for their behaviors, and helps give tools to control those behaviors.

A three-year program evaluation demonstrated the success and benefits of the program on its participants, and concluded that RAISE accomplishes its goals over the course of the five-week program. These include significant improvements in behavior, engagement and participation, an increased knowledge of art and critical thinking, and increased self-awareness. The museum has also found additional value in serving new audiences, expanding their community engagement, and becoming more relevant to the community by meeting different needs.

What these museums are doing demonstrates how important it is for different institutions to start and continue the discussion on mass incarceration and its widespread effects in a larger context. Museums might not be the most obvious venue for critical discussions on social issues, or for hosting alternative sentencing programs, but perhaps they — and other outside-the-box venues — should examine how to become involved in creating awareness and solutions. These two very effective programs demonstrate the vital importance of community involvement in reducing mass incarceration. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.