Considering Mass Incarceration: A 2016 exhibit to foster dialogue

The Big Graph, a 16-foot, 3,500-pound plate steel bar graph is now a focal point for all tours.
A view of the former workshops (circled) alongside Cellblock 4 as seen from the baseball field prior to construction.
Searchlight Series: Prison Yoga, June 2014. Alexandra Schepens discussed her experiences conducting yoga classes in prisons.
She then led a 30-minute yoga class on the baseball field.
Visitors' notes demonstrate that they're willing to think about contemporary corrections issues and want to share their perspectives.
Visitors in front of Eastern State’s first incarceration statistics sign, 2012.
A mason restores the stone walls of the original 1835 cellblock that houses the exhibit
Prisons Today exhibit in the middle of panel installation
Visitors exploring Prisons Today
2015, $150,000
Status: Complete

It is time to examine the history, effectiveness and fairness of the U.S. criminal justice system. Eastern State Penitentiary’s founders were committed to addressing the problems of prisons in their era. The historic site carries this spirit forward in two ways. First, contemporary criminal justice perspectives are now a substantial feature of our programs. Second, we have begun serving as a forum for dialogue about corrections.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s programs began moving in this direction several years ago. By 2013 our tour content, signage, audio stops, events and a new lecture series directly addressed some of our society’s most challenging and most divisive issues. The Big Graph, a massive bar graph that illustrates the skyrocketing growth of the U.S. prison population, dramatically announced Eastern State’s expanded focus.

The Big Graph introduces our visitors to a major problem demanding our attention. However, it is simply a first step to opening discussion. Eastern State must now link the patterns affecting millions of people and costing billions of dollars with the stories of real men and women affected by these historic changes. Ultimately, we want visitors to reflect on the penitentiary’s long history, consider how our criminal justice system has evolved and explore where we as a nation plan to take it next.

Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration, an ambitious new exhibit developed in 2014 and 2015 and opened in May, 2016, probes into the effectiveness and fairness of our current criminal justice system and directly invites visitors into conversation. It asks visitors to share their stories and spend time with men and women—including prisoners, victims of violent crime and those employed in the system—whose lives are affected by the historic changes to our criminal justice system over the past 40 years.

Open-ended questions paired with a variety of interactive elements form the core of the exhibit telling this deeper story about mass incarceration. The exhibit provides a place for reflection and dialogue. It also provides ideas and resources for visitors who feel moved by what they have experienced and want to take action.

The exhibit fully occupies a former workshop off the baseball field facing The Big Graph. Its proximity to the end of the audio tour makes it the natural next activity for visitors, especially after they have encountered the dramatic rendering of U.S. incarceration statistics. In addition, we converted an adjoining space to serve as a classroom where larger groups can engage in extended conversations about Prisons Today.

In 2015 we worked to prepare the raw space for the exhibit installation while we simultaneously developed the content and design. Skylight restoration sealed the space from water infiltration and provides a natural light source for the exhibit. Boosting the electrical supply to the area with a substation and new wiring safely provides power for additional lighting and multi-media elements, as well as for climate control that will prolong the life of the exhibit and ensure visitor comfort.

Construction on the exercise yards lasted from August through December of 2015. Once these important infrastructure projects were complete, we were able to install exhibit panels and elements that will make this an engaging experience for all of our visitors.

Thank you!

Major funding for the exhibit itself was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. It took more than $300,000 in additional funding to transform the old workshop into a modern exhibit facility. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant provided $150,000, which Eastern State had to match dollar for dollar! To date over 425 generous donors and members have contributed more than $80,000 to match this capital program funding. Because of these donors, we were able to make Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration a reality.

Thank you for broadening the conversation about mass incarceration. We are grateful for your support of this next stage of Eastern State’s contemporary corrections programming.

To discuss supporting other projects at Eastern State, contact Elyssa Kane, Director of Advancement, at (215) 236-5111 x 217 or [email protected].