Eastern State Penitentiary To Debut Groundbreaking New Exhibition Prisons Today This May

In a brand-new exhibit, Philly's historic Eastern State Penitentiary looks at the role of prisons in the U.S. and the impact of mass incarceration — past, present and future.

With 2.2 million people currently serving jail or prison time, the United States tops the list of highest incarceration rates in the world.

Debuting Friday, May 6, Eastern State Penitentiary considers the role of prisons in the U.S. and the impact of mass incarceration — past, present and future — through a groundbreaking exhibition Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

Prisons Today Fast Facts

  • Eastern State Penitentiary’s new exhibit opens Friday, May 6.
  • Prisons Today is included in regular admission, which runs $10-$14.
  • The penitentiary is open seven days a week, year round.

Three years in the making, the exhibit continues Eastern State’s dedication to spotlighting contemporary corrections issues and marks the first time a major attraction will initiate a conversation about the efficacy of the present prison system model in the country.

Eastern State Penitentiary
(Photo by Darryl Moran)
Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary — shown here in an aerial view — opened in 1829 and was designed to house 250 inmates.

What You’ll See In Prisons Today

Finding a home in the workshops by Cellblock 4, visitors immediately come face to face with the state of the prison system in 1970, the year Eastern State closed, and today.

A huge graph displays prison and jail populations in 1970 versus 2015, drawing attention to the fact that the rate of violent crime, which has fluctuated throughout these years, is currently nearly identical to the numbers from the 1970s.

Despite that fact, the number of people imprisoned has increased by almost 600 percent since 1970.

A video wall displays the part politicians played in creating the current mass incarceration climate. Archival footage of President Johnson’s announcement of his War on Crime, Presidents Nixon and Reagan’s campaigns for a War on Drugs, President Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1994 crime bill and various state legislators’ “get tough on crime” stances by enacting three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines all provided the framework for today’s state of affairs.

(Image courtesy Metcalfe Architecture & Design, LLC)
A huge graph ushers visitors into Prisons Today, drawing a stark contrast between the rate of violent crime and the prison population in 1970 versus 2015.

Interactive and Multimedia Displays

More than a passive experience, the interactive exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to find their own value and belief systems while participating in the conversation surrounding the issues.

The role prisons should play, which has long been debated, comes into question within the exhibition. A series of touch screens allows visitors to rank and vote for what each thinks the priority should be: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation or confinement. Visitors have a chance to add additional input for what one might believe currently fuels the explosive prison growth.

Hearing or reading about the prison system can not duplicate the experience for those whose lives have been affected by incarceration. Prisons Today allows visitors to come closer to understanding the reality for those incarcerated — before, during and after imprisonment.

Gabriela Bulisova’s video installation documents the lives touched by the prison system. A young girl in foster care with a father serving a lengthy sentence, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections and those previously and currently serving terms all share their thoughts and personal stories for this presentation.

(Image courtesy Metcalfe Architecture & Design, LLC)
More than a passive experience, Prisons Today offer the chance to to examine personal beliefs while looking at what steps could help shape the American criminal justice system.

Interactive tabletops — similar those in some prison and jail visitation rooms — allow visitors a chance to fill out a digital questionnaire on their own upbringing and environment to consider how demographical background impacts one’s experience and interactions with the criminal justice system. Statistical predictors can indicate the chances of becoming entangled in the system. Childhood household income, trauma or violence as a child, peers or role models, race and ethnicity all factor into the likelihood. Results suggest patterns for peer groups, shareable with others taking the survey.

While surveying the past and considering the present state of the criminal justice system, the exhibition also gazes toward the future around reducing the number of people behind bars and those transitioning back into society. Visitors answer simple questions on digital postcards, later sent to them over the course of months and years, serving as current and future moments of reflection about incarceration and criminal justice policies.

Almost foreshadowing things to come, the penitentiary that was designed to hold 250 inmates when it opened in 1829 found more than 1,800 inmates in its detention by the 1930s.

One might wonder what infamous former inmates Willie Sutton and Al Capone might think of both the exhibition and mass incarceration in the United States today.

Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration

When:Opening Friday, May 6
Where:Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue
Cost:Included with regular admission; $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for students and kids 7-12




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