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Eastern State Penitentiary and the Critique of Mass Incarceration

Inside the former prison-turned-museum and its new exhibit about the perils and inequities of mass incarceration in America.
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Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

A humid afternoon in Philadelphia is an unforgiving time to mill around this prison yard. But here they are, of their own free will. Penned between the thick stone walls and brick towers — ominous battlements that evoke a medieval castle — more than a dozen tourists dressed in shorts and tank tops, capri pants and polos, wander across Eastern State Penitentiary’s baseball diamond with audio packs slung around their necks. A voice pipes through their headphones as they contemplate a 16-foot sculpture of a bar graph depicting the jumping rate of incarceration among the general population of the United States. The back side of the sculpture emphasizes the prison system’s increasingly skewed racial composition. “So why does the U.S. need to imprison so many people and what are the consequences?” asks a disembodied voice.

A white family of three approaches the sculpture. The young son takes a seat on a bench while his parents look up at the graph. The father, in khaki shorts and a white Nike ballcap, says: “That’s crazy. That’s a problem.” The mother, in a gray-and-blue striped blouse and white shorts, counters, “Well, the amount of people has gone up.” They murmur — too low for eavesdropping — until the man says, “They’re talking about changing that.”

It’s not a crime wave that has created mass incarceration; it’s politics.

Americans are talking about reforming the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration it has begotten: With 2.2 million prisoners in American jails, the U.S. holds more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population. Right now, Congress has on its legislative calendar a bipartisan sentencing reform bill, and the broader reform campaign, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, have compelled everyday citizens to start thinking about subjects such as mandatory minimums. Now, even penal institutions are joining the conversation. In May, Eastern State Penitentiary, the historic prison-turned-museum, unveiled its new exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, an installation that begins just through the red door across from that bar-graph sculpture in the prison yard.

That Eastern State Penitentiary would tackle the issue of prison reform makes a certain sense, though it took them a while: This nearly 200-year-old fortress of a facility has roots in the 19th-century prison reform movement, when advocates for enlightened incarceration were pushing solitary confinement as a more humane and rehabilitative treatment than the corporal punishment in vogue at other American prisons. The prison closed in 1971. But since re-opening in the 1990s as an interpretive site, translating its historical significance for modern audiences, Eastern State has been best known for its annual haunted house, and for law-and-order voyeurism. The morality of mass incarceration was not part of the discussion.

Eastern State Penitentiary, seen from above.

Eastern State Penitentiary, seen from above.

“For a major prison site to not mention what’s happening in the American prison system today would be irresponsible,” says Sean Kelley, senior vice president at Eastern State Penitentiary. “I think we actually were irresponsible for a long time by not pushing it harder.” Kelley is not alone. Museums today are reckoning more and more with their roles as potential drivers of social change; “Inspiring Change” was even the theme of last year’s American Alliance of Museums conference in Atlanta. Eastern State began to address criminal justice reform a few years ago, adding statistics about mass incarceration to its audio tour in 2012 and building the Big Graph in the prison yard two years later. The current exhibit is Eastern State’s foray into an advocacy role, bringing with it a slate of questions. What do the curators want to say about mass incarceration to tourists who have come to visit on a lark? Who are they trying to persuade, and how can they do so without going too far? These questions had Kelley nervous while designing the exhibit, looking over politically charged panels — such as one discussing voter disenfranchisement — that his team was considering. “This is the panel that’s going to get me fired,” he recalls worrying about each.

It’s an immediate relief to step across the bright red threshold that leads into “Prisons Today.” The exhibit is air-conditioned, unlike the museum’s vaulted cellblocks and the prison yard outside the door. (Kelley jokes that the cool air is a trick to draw visitors in.) But discomfort returns quickly. Across from the door, another chart feels designed to shock or assault visitors, offering a stark visualization of how the number of people incarcerated in America has exploded since 1970, against the only slight uptick in violent crimes. “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working,” the panel below it reads.

This wasn’t originally intended to be the starting point of the exhibit. When the staff at Eastern State conceived of “Prisons Today” a few years ago, the idea was to examine the four rationales behind imprisonment— retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation — and ask visitors whether the current prison system succeeds in those arenas. But that changed last year when Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project and one of the exhibit’s core advisors, spoke up. “Is that a valid discussion?” she asked. Kelley admitted that he believes the prison system is struggling on all four fronts. “Everyone realized the debate is over,” he says.

“If there’s one über-message we’re trying to get across — other than that mass incarceration isn’t working — it’s an appeal to empathy.”

Most people understand there’s a problem with the modern prison system, Ghandnoosh says. But they don’t always know the diagnosis. Part of her role at the Sentencing Project is educational, to clear up common perceptions around mass incarceration. These misperceptions include the notion that the drug war and the greed of private prisons are wholly to blame for creating such a bloated system. While those have certainly created problems, she says, people don’t realize that “we’ve also overdone it in terms of how many people we’re sending to prison for property and violent offenses and how long we keep them there.” It’s not a crime wave that has created mass incarceration; it’s politics.

“If you’re not immersed in these issues, it seems like there are two sides to the story,” Ghandnoosh says. But, she adds, there’s “a near-consensus” among scholars and experts in the field both about the causes of mass incarceration and the fact that it’s doing more harm than good. There’s a near-consensus among politicians too. To the right of the exhibit’s entrance, a semi-dark theater reels off news clips that reveal the arc of crime as a political issue, from decades of tough-on-crime stances to Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s speech earlier this year on the promise of rehabilitation and redemption, and importance of criminal justice reform.

That consensus is what “Prisons Today” explores: how mass incarceration came to be, and why the prison system is failing. But the exhibit has another important objective, Kelley says. “If there’s one uber-message we’re trying to get across — other than that mass incarceration isn’t working — it’s an appeal to empathy.”

“Have you ever broken the law?” asks a red sign affixed to the wire cage blocking the entrance into the main exhibit room. If your answer is no, the sign directs you to turn right, where another sign basically calls bullshit on you. “You’re very unusual,” that sign reads. “About 70% of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to prison.” If you admit to having committed a crime, the sign directs you to turn left.

“You’ll have to turn left,” a young dad teases his daughter, who looks to be no more than six years old. Her older brother declares that the whole family has broken the law so they all must pass to the left of the sign. “Jaywalking,” he says, knowingly. Joined by a young mother, the family of four follows the left fork, which deposits them in front of a wall of confessions. The wall prompts them to write down their own crimes and then examine hand-written confessions from other visitors as well as from convicted felons. Hanging side-by-side, there’s a teacher’s admission of stealing $300 from a deceased student’s memorial fund, and a kid confessing to stealing CDs and cigarettes from unlocked cars for years. Only the latter served time.


The juxtaposition is meant to be jarring — to humanize the nonsensical inequity of the penal system. Eastern State says its visitors are 80 percent Caucasian and 70 percent tourists visiting Philadelphia. They might not have a personal connection to prison life, but that’s the exact audience “Prisons Today” aims to persuade. “We’re not trying to drive a new audience to us,” Kelley says, “but we’re trying to engage in a deeper way with people who are already coming.”

More specifically, Eastern State Penitentiary is targeting a segment of its audience: those who are generally unaware of the need for prison reform or the failures of the criminal justice system. Kelley says that, while information about mass incarceration might not filter into these people’s regular lives, an engaging exhibit might convince them to care. Hence the touching videos of children who find themselves in foster care because a parent is incarcerated, and a quiz you can take with a partner to see which of your life circumstances made you more likely to wind up in jail. There’s a glass case with handkerchiefs and other personal effects from formerly imprisoned museum guides. Eastern State aims to plant the idea that anyone around you might have served time. They’re not so scary.

By the time you reach the end of the “Prisons Today” exhibit, you’ve passed by a string of prompts. Is imprisonment the best way to invest in poor neighborhoods? Did the way you grew up influence your relationship with the criminal justice system? How do you think that system might be able to change in a year? How about two years? Send postcards to your future self with your predictions at an email station, then pull up a seat at a table crowded with books like the graphic re-telling of Race to Incarcerate.

At Eastern State, you’ll find plenty of information about the causes of mass incarceration — the role of the drug war, the role of private prisons, the roles of poverty and of race — as well as the potential solutions that states like California and New York are considering. But you won’t see Eastern State prescribing any specific political action in this exhibit. “Museums are uniquely positioned as places that can provide a shared experience and a necessary historical or scientific context that helps visitors have the conversation that they need to have,” says Sarah Pharaon, senior director for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. If museums addressing thorny issues maintain an inquisitive rather than partisan tone, it encourages people to learn from each other, as well as in the traditional top-down museum approach.

That solidarity is what Valerie Gay loves about it. Gay is the executive director of Art Sanctuary, an organization that seeks to drive social change through black art. Gay has worked with Eastern State Penitentiary for years; her daughter was a tour guide who turned her onto the museum with stories of watching knowledge quicken in the eyes of middle schoolers confronted by open-ended questions about prisons and race. Gay says the tone of the exhibit is a welcome change from the political debates that tend to demonize opposing points of view. “You’re allowed to think for yourself,” Gay says. “There’s so few opportunities to do that these days.”

Most people understand there’s a problem with the modern prison system, Ghandnoosh says. But they don’t always know the diagnosis.

Armed with that appreciation, Gay became involved with the Prisons Today exhibit, helping the mostly white staff at Eastern State Penitentiary research the effect mass incarceration has had on the local black community through a series of dinners at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. She says Kelley and his team listened and took notes while attendees — mostly older people who had been social activists for decades, some of whom had served time — explained how the prison system had been forced into their lives. (The church’s pastor insisted that people should be paid for sharing their opinions, not exploited, and the museum agreed, offering up to $100 for attending all three dinners.)

Questions of race — and the problems that the criminal justice apparatus has disproportionately foisted on communities of color — permeate the exhibit in the same thoughtful tone that Pharaon recommends. At one interactive station, you can light up red, blue, and green buttons by answering questions about whether society gives your race advantages, how well-funded your grade school was growing up, and whether your role models struggled with addiction or incarceration. Tabulating those answers, the station reveals your peer group’s likeliness of incarceration and asks, “Do you think these factors have affected your relationship to the criminal justice system?” Another panel notes there’s a clear pattern whereby men and women who grew up in poverty and attended failing schools wind up in prison. “More than half are Black or Latino,” it says. “The question is why? And how can we break these troubling patterns?”

Going forward, Gay’s Art Sanctuary is partnering with Eastern State Penitentiary on a school-to-prison-pipeline project called From Brown v. Board to Ferguson: Fostering Dialogue on Education, Incarceration and Civil Rights. They’ll develop programming around race, inequity, and incarceration that the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will then use to show other museums and cultural institutions how to make these conversations matter.

Having been open for less than three months, it’s not clear what effect “Prisons Today” will have when it comes to talking about mass incarceration. But the touchscreen stations in the center of the exhibit at least offer some hint as to how well Eastern State Penitentiary’s message is getting through to tourists. On black backgrounds, these screens ask visitors to decide what prisons are for and what they should do. Out of the 2,460 people who voted within the exhibit’s first three weeks, 55 percent believe that the prison system should exist to rehabilitate lawbreakers rather than deter, incapacitate, or claim retribution from them.

Meanwhile, in the back of the room, the young girl whose family copped to their jaywalking ways at the beginning of the exhibit stands in front of a red panel that reads “Postcards to Your Future Self.” Her mother watches as her fingers clack on the white keyboard, typing predictions on how she thinks the criminal justice system will have changed by the time these emails arrive in her inbox in two months, one year, and three years. This exhibit has barely been open long enough for the first missives, written on its opening day, to arrive in anyone’s inbox. Nothing about mass incarceration has changed in that time anyway. But in one year, or three? By the time the girl reaches her mother’s age? That’s open for discussion.