PHILADELPHIA, May 12, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- A groundbreaking new exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, is now open at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. The first major museum exhibit to tackle this subject matter, Prisons Today challenges visitors to reexamine their notions about the role and effectiveness of prisons in America.
Three years in the making, Prisons Today calls on the most current scholarship in the fields of sociology and criminology, but presents concepts in a broad, direct, and interactive way. Innovative filmmaking elicits personal connections to the U.S. criminal justice system, and digital interactives encourage reflection on the purpose and effectiveness of American prisons. A call to action section suggests steps that visitors can take to help shape the American criminal justice system moving forward.
"The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, by far, with 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail, and yet we have no national prison museum," says Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. "Many Americans see criminal justice reform as the civil rights challenge of this generation. It's time to address this subject with honesty and critical thinking, and there's no better place to do so than Eastern State Penitentiary."
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by an oversized graph depicting the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails in 1970 (the year Eastern State Penitentiary closed) and 2015, compared to the violent crime rates in both years. The number of incarcerated people has increased by nearly 600%. The rate of violent crime, which has risen and fallen throughout these years, is now nearly identical.
"There is now bipartisan agreement that the U.S. incarcerates too many people," Mr. Kelley says. "We titled that first graph 'Mass Incarceration Isn't Working' to make it clear that the real questions revolve around what our nation should do now."
Criminal Justice Policy Video Wall:
A fast-paced video installation by Greenhouse Media synchronizes a vintage television set with six flat screens, summarizing criminal justice policy decisions dating back to the 1960s. Television appearances include:
- President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing his War on Crime
- Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan calling for a War on Drugs
- President Bill Clinton signing his 1994 crime bill
- State legislators announcing their own mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws
Although the effects often took decades to manifest, each of these policy shifts increased the rate of incarceration in the U.S. The video ends with many of the architects of these changes, Democrats and Republicans alike, admitting the failure of these policies and suggesting that it is time for real change.
Between showings on the video wall, an Instagram feed curated by Lisa Riordan Seville and Zara Katz, producers of @EverydayIncarceration, occupies the massive screens, putting human faces on this modern-day period of mass incarceration.
What Are Prisons For? Interactive:
A set of touch screens designed by Interactive Mechanics invites visitors to vote on what values they believe the U.S. prison system should be pursuing. The visitor can slide icons on the screens to rank the four recognized rationales for incarceration:
- Retribution (an eye for an eye)
- Deterrence (setting an example)
- Rehabilitation (breaking the cycle of crime)
- Incapacitation (confining dangerous people)
The interactive then asks if there are other factors the visitor believes may have driven the recent prison boom, such as profit motives, racial control, hiding poverty/addiction, or other problems. A final set of charts will compare the visitor's responses to those of other visitors.
The digital interactive is also available online at www.EasternState.org/PrisonsToday. Users from anywhere in the world can contribute their answers to the growing database presented in the exhibit.
Personal Stories Video Installation:
A three-screen video installation by documentary filmmaker Gabriela Bulisova highlights the lives of people currently involved with the U.S. criminal justice system:
- Kiya is growing up largely without her father, a man serving a long sentence. She's been in the foster care system for most of her life.
- Adan has had run-ins with the police, dropped out of school, lived on the streets, and engaged in illegal activities. But now, with the help of Latino service organization Congreso de Latinos Unidos, he has earned his GED, enrolled in college, and speaks of his hopes for the future.
- Phil (shown below) is serving life without the possibility of parole. He runs a restorative justice program called "Let's Circle Up" inside his maximum-security prison.
- Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel sees the need for prisons and incarceration to keep society safe, but he speaks passionately about his concern for the men and women under his care, and about their prospects upon release.
- Jesse Krimes, an artist and outspoken critic of mass incarceration, made art while in prison and then blossomed upon release.
Early Experiences Matter Interactive:
This set of interactive tabletops asks visitors to reflect on how their personal backgrounds and upbringings may have affected their interactions with the criminal justice system. Statistical predictors of incarceration include:
- Household income during childhood
- Funding of elementary and high schools
- Exposure to real-life trauma or violence as a child
- Influence of peers and role models
Each visitor completes a digital questionnaire one side of the table, and, if he or she chooses, shares the answers on his/her partner's desktop. Results can be tallied to state whether the visitors' peer groups are experiencing high or low rates of incarceration. The exhibit asks, "How have these factors impacted your relationship with the criminal justice system?" and, "If your answers look a lot like your partner's, why do you think that is?"
Killed in the Line of Duty:
Prisons Today is housed inside workshops alongside Eastern State's Cellblock 4. A small plaque marks the spot where prisoner Joseph Taylor murdered Officer Michael Doran in 1884. It reminds visitors that law enforcement is a dangerous and important occupation.
Change and the Future:
A set of graphic panels highlights individuals, organizations, and policies that are making improvements to the criminal justice system, finding specific answers to reduce the need for incarceration, and helping individuals transition back into life beyond the walls.
The exhibit ends with a digital interactive called Postcards to Your Future Self. The visitor answers a set of questions designed to encourage reflection:
- "How do you think the criminal justice system will change in the next three years?"
- "If you could tell one person about your thoughts today, visiting this exhibit, who would it be, and what would you say?"
Three digital "postcards" are then sent to the visitor: the first in two months' time, the second in one year, and the third in three years. Each postcard includes some of the visitor's thoughts while touring the exhibit, paired with information about current developments in criminal justice policy and ways to become involved, all tailored to the visitor's interests.
About Prisons Today:
Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration is the next step in Eastern State Penitentiary's continued focus on issues of contemporary corrections. It acts as a companion to The Big Graph, which compares the U.S. rate of incarceration to all other nations in the world and illustrates the racial breakdown of the U.S. prison population over time. Eastern State also hosts The Searchlight Series, a free monthly discussion series about crime, justice, and the American prison system.
The exhibit is included with standard admission to the historic site. Regular daytime programs, including "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, guided Hands-On History tours, history exhibits, and artist installations, are also included in admission. Tickets are available online at www.EasternState.org, or at the door subject to availability.
About Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site:
Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America's most notorious criminals, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and Al Capone.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is located at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, just five blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The penitentiary is open seven days a week, year round. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students and children ages 7-12. (Not recommended for children under the age of seven.) Tickets are available online at www.EasternState.org or at the door, subject to availability. Admission includes "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi; Hands-On History interactive experiences; history exhibits; and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations.
For more information and schedules, the public should call (215) 236-3300 or visit www.EasternState.org.
Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
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SOURCE Eastern State Penitentiary