On Display


Mass Incarceration

Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham illuminates how museum professionals are pushing boundaries to respond to the big issues of our time. In this episode, we explore how Mass Incarceration is on display through the lens of Eastern State Penitentiary and The Drawing Center’s exhibits and programs, intersecting history and art as it relates to current experiences.

AIRED: April 29, 2020 | 0:13:47

The more people

know about this issue of mass incarceration,

I think more people will get involved,

more people will also understand that

a lot of the treatment is inhumane.

I mean, this is what museums should do.

I just think this helps us be a better society.

Prisons themselves are ubiquitous. They're like everywhere and nowhere.

So as we ride by them we acknowledge that we see them,

but we don't know about the machinations.

We don't know what going on in the space really and we don't bother to find out.


Hi, my name is Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham,

and we're discussing mass incarceration today

"On Display."

There are over two million people

incarcerated in the United States.

We are the largest prison system in the world,

and crime fluctuates.

It is not based on how many people we arrest.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

helped shape the modern prison system

that we know today.

Its practices drew many critics,

including Charles Dickens, who called the prison

and its practice of solitary confinement

a place of agony and torture.

Zalut: This place was designed

as the first true penitentiary in the world

and the original concept was to help folks

who had broken the law achieve penitence,

or what we would call today reform or rehabilitation.

But due to overcrowding, they had to abandon

that original system of solitary confinement.

And that original system sounds pretty harsh today.

It was actually considered humane

compared to the criminal justice system that came before it,

which included public punishment,

execution, and shaming.

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous

and expensive prison in the world,

but stands today in ruin,

a haunting world of crumbling cell blocks

and empty guard towers.

It opened in 1829

and was an operating prison for about 150 years.

It closed and then reopened in 1998 as a museum

and historic site.


Eastern State hires former inmates,

referred to as returning citizens,

to work as guides, and I'm so thrilled

that I had the opportunity to speak to Reem Cotton

about his firsthand experience of going to prison

and what it's been like for him since he's returned home.

My experience with prison was both rough physically,

emotionally, and I would say psychologically.

You need a kind of constitution about you,

to be in a carceral space,

because you're not in place to better you,

make you better.

Prisons themselves are like ubiquitous.

They're like everywhere and nowhere.

So, as we ride by them, we acknowledge that we see them,

but we don't know about the machinations.

We don't know about what's going on in the space really,

and we don't bother to find out.


Philosophically and structurally,

you see Eastern State present in contemporary corrections.

Whenever you find a place to put folks,

somehow you find more folks to put there, right?

For more than a century, the US imprisoned

between 100 and 200 people for every 100,000 citizens.

That began to change around the time

that Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970.

New laws and longer prison sentences

began to dramatically increase the prison population.

The big graph is three-sided.

On the one side, it demonstrates for us

sort of when it all began.

And on the other side, explains, you know,

who is exactly is getting locked up based largely on race.

So, there's a large jump between 1970 and 2010.

Why do you think that occurred?

Beginning with, like, the war on crime,

was then morphed into what would arguably be called

the war on drugs, and its natural outgrowths,

whether that's three strikes legislation,

mandatory minimums for drug sentences.

And the swelling population

is largely nonviolent offenders, right?

And so, the other side, we see here a breakdown of race.

The black population has significantly increased,

even though the population itself

is only like 13% or 14%.


Overwhelmingly, there's an over-representation

of black and brown bodies within carceral spaces.

That is a fact. Right.

Bryan Stevenson says it's a continuation

of enslavement system, as well.

To continue to put black bodies in prison,

to continue to do work,

to continue to punish is a part of the same system,

and it isn't disconnected.


Now Eastern Staten Penitentiary is introducing the public

to greater dialog around issues of crime, justice,

and the changing face of our criminal justice system.

Zalut: So, when I joined the staff back in 2012,

we really only interpreted the history of this building.

And starting in about 2013,

we began to talk about mass incarceration

really with our museum voice.

We feel like we have the potential

or that we are in many ways the national prison museum,

where folks should be coming together in dialog,

across many lived experiences,

to talk about what we think prisons

should do in this country.

We really believe that there can be public safety,

there can be safe communities

without having to have two million people in prison.

One thing that he mentioned that stood out to me

was that it's not necessarily people who were imprisoned

who needs assistance with getting back into everyday life,

but those of us who are not in prison welcoming them.

We usually think like, "Well, how are these people

going to be able to navigate the world today?"

And he's like, "We're navigating.

We know how to navigate.

The issue is people on the outside embracing us."

Because the reality is, even folks in carceral spaces

are part of our community.

Right. They will be back.

Yes. What we have to look at changing

is the conditions of people's --

Yeah, absolutely.


Prisons themselves, I believe, have become a place,

like our repositories for problems

that we just don't want to deal with,

like directly, right now.

But it's still there.




So, we are here at The Drawing Center

to see The Pencil Is a Key exhibition.

The Pencil Is a Key provides visibility for artists

who were formerly or currently incarcerated,

and it provides a lens into the historical

and contemporary narrative of incarceration.

Can you tell us a little bit more about how

the show materialized?

It began with the idea of artists drawing on prison walls.

And so, from there, it moved to this idea of drawings

by artists who are incarcerated.

We thought a lot about, you know,

what ground we wanted it to cover, what centuries,

and we ended up beginning with the French Revolution

because I think we see that time,

or shortly thereafter, as being the birth

of the modern prison system.

What are some of the themes that you see that stand out

with some of the artists in the show?

The one genre that is predominant is portraiture.

It's the idea of trying to access humanity, right?

So, what is a more interesting subject than your fellow inmate?

I think it's so amazing to think about those who have been

and are incarcerated as artists.

They are human beings who are expressing

what they are going through

when their freedom is taken from them.

And it's so interesting to see the aesthetics

of what they are creating,

to see the narratives, to see the subject matters.

These works were made by a Kurdish artist and journalist.

Her name is Zehra Dogan.

She was incarcerated because she made a painting of kind of

like conflicts in Kurdish cities

that offended the Turkish government.

So, these are all fabrics that her mother sent her,

and she drew on them.

And these are likely women

that perhaps were incarcerated with Zehra in prison.

And here you can see, for instance,

you know, little girls.

Yeah, and I also see, like, pregnant women here, too.

Right, yes.

And I know here in the US,

that is an issue with women being incarcerated

who are giving birth.

A lot of them are chained to the hospital bed

while they're giving birth.

So that kind of reminds me

of that issue here in the United States.

Gilman: You know the purpose of this show

was not to pass a judgment.

You know we have people that come in and say,

"Oh, you have a lot of political prisoners,

and then you have some people who did bad things."

First of all, anyone who's incarcerated, it's political.

Right? There are reasons why certain people, you know,

are incarcerated at greater rates than other people.

It's all political,

and we are not here to pass judgment on what someone did.

And I think when people start going through the show,

they stop asking that question, right?

They realize that that's not the point of this show,

and they start to see the humanity

that is coming through these drawings.


Hoptman: The issue is so contemporary, it's so around us.

It's not just a civic duty, but an art historical duty,

if you will, to mark this moment,

mark this period in American life.

For those of us who have had experience

with incarceration, there's a relatability.

For those of us who have not...

And many of us in the art community

have a kind of blindness to that element in the United States,

even though there's an ICE facility

10 blocks away.

It's a way for us to understand

and relate to situations that might be considered unseeable.

I think it's really important to place this issue on display.

And I think it's so important that more and more people

continue to talk about it, especially in the art world.

We know that arts and culture

are a part of creating the national dialog,

are a part of creating political narratives.

And so, the more people know about this issue

of mass incarceration,

I think more people will get involved

and more people will also understand

that a lot of the treatment is inhumane.

These individuals, how are we helping them

to come back into society?

And how are we making sure that the communities

that they represent get better resources,

so that there aren't more people who enter the prison system?

Cotton: We're playing the role

of almost like public information officers.

We are making sure that folks know

the real facts in and around mass incarceration,

and we're doing it in a way that's...


...that's bold and brave and unapologetic.

Zalut: I mean, this is what museums should do.

Museums should be places where people come together

to learn new things and become passionate about issues

that impact their lives every single day.

I just think that this helps us be a better society.

And if museums want to be engaged

in social justice issues,

which so many of them claim they want to,

they need to work on projects, and they need to include

the voices of everybody in their community.

And folks who have been incarcerated

are among the most marginalized people in our society.






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