The 30-foot walls surrounding the nearly 10 acres comprising Eastern State Penitentiary were erected to prevent prisoners from getting out, so when John Haviland designed the jail nearly 187 years ago he likely didn’t envision welcoming visitors to come in behind its walls.
Now, the same facility hosts Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, questioning the ability not to escape the prison, but the prison system.
- Eastern State Penitentiary’s new exhibit is now open.
- Prisons Today is included in regular admission, which runs $10-$14.
- The exhibition promises interactive elements, engaging reading and more.
Themes In Prisons Today
The exhibit marks the first major museum to address preconceptions surrounding incarceration in the United States, not ironically housed in a building to first use a new design and new methodology when the doors opened in 1829. The Pennsylvania System combined a “hub and spoke” layout, featuring cellblocks fanning out from a central focal point, and solitary confinement coupled with hard labor.
Three years in the making and drawing on expertise in the areas of criminology and sociology, the exhibition brings attention not only to the United State’s incarceration rate — the highest of any country in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars — but also questions how the nation got to this point.
By utilizing staggering statistics, personal narratives and interactive displays, Prisons Today critically considers the role incarceration plays in the national conscience and individual psyche.
Multimedia and Interactive Elements
A graph at the beginning of the exhibition, “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working,” confronts this reality using hard numbers. In comparing the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. in 1970, the year Eastern State Penitentiary closed, to 2015, as well as the violent crime rates for both years, a stark picture comes into focus: while the level of violent crime fluctuated over time, in 1970 and 2015 the rate was the same, while the number of people imprisoned increased six-fold.
Continuing through the workshops in Cellblock 4 where the exhibition lives, the Criminal Justice Policy Wall utilizes a vintage T.V. refit with six flat-screen panels to broadcast television appearances from policymakers as they implemented various criminal justice policies.
Avoiding partisan politics, representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties are seen and heard creating platforms that led to policy shifts, resulting in large segments of the population imprisoned.
Whether state legislators espousing the virtues of mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws, or presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton putting forward radical ideas, the video concludes with all admitting their policies failed and the need for sweeping changes.
Between loops of the video, producers of the @EverydayIncarceration Instagram account curate a feed on the video wall, showing visitors the faces of those impacted by the figures and policies displayed in the exhibition.
The What Are Prisons For? interactive portion allows visitors to examine one’s own ideas about the function he or she believe the prison system should play in society. Each visitor ranks rationales for the role prisons should play: eye for an eye, setting an example, breaking the cycle of crime or confining dangerous individuals.
After ordering the icons on the interactive screens, visitors can share input about mitigating factors he or she also may believe factor into the huge spike in prison population numbers including poverty, addiction, race and prison privatization.
From this point, the exhibition transitions from the hard facts and numbers to put a face on the issue. Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Bulisova’s Personal Stories Video Installation utilizes three screens to tell the stories of those currently impacted by incarceration in one way or another.
Videos tell the stories of a child with a father currently imprisoned, a Latino youth who has experienced brushes with the law before turning his life around, a prisoner serving life without parole, the Pennsylvania secretary of correction’s thoughts on balancing the need for prisons with his role and an artist who created art while in prison before his release and becoming a vocal critic of mass incarceration.
The Early Experiences Matter asks visitors to pause and reflect on one’s own upbringing to explore how personal history affects his or her chances of coming in contact with and experience within the criminal justice system. By filling out a survey at an interactive tabletop, shareble with a partner on the other side of the same table, to consider similarities and differences of answers and outcomes.
The Future of the American Prison System
The only constant is change. With that in mind, the exhibition not only looks to the past and considers the present through a series of panels bringing attention to the people, policies and organizations involved in reforming the criminal justice system while looking to the future by assisting those transitioning back into society after paying his or her debt
Postcards to Your Future Self brings the exhibition to its conclusion. As opposed to treating the exhibition as a monologue with a definitive end, Prisons Today gives visitors a chance to fill out digital postcards that answer two questions. The postcard is later mailed to the visitor after two months, one year and three years to see what may have changed, be it the system or the individual’s beliefs.
The system Eastern State Penitentiary unveiled in 1829, which inspired more than 300 other prisons in its time, was officially abandoned in 1913. What was once believed to be a good idea or solution, often later proves to not be a system worth continuing.