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Stories of the incarcerated – learning from the USA

Stories of the incarcerated – learning from the USA



Dr Lorraine Gamman, Director of the Design Against Crime Research Centre at University of the Arts London, reviews two works of art from the USA that tell stories of people in the criminal justice system.


Voices of the incarcerated

‘The Writing on the Wall’ is an installation that aims raise awareness about incarceration across the world. The striking piece was recently installed on the New York City High Line, a 1.45 mile long railway in the sky, converted as a public walkway complete with benches rockeries and over 100,000 gorgeous plants, trees, and shrubs. As the walkway met 14th Street, three white pop-up units appeared in view, each designed to scale to evoke the idea of confinement associated with prison cells. The six by nine feet pop-up units’ white acrylic and polycarbonate walls were plastered with writing.

When you read someone’s words you have to in some way connect with them
Hank Willis Thomas, The New York Times

Revealed from many different formats – messy notes, neat handwritten letters, poems, essays, stories and illustrations (some from a hand-drawn graphic novel) – the writing showcased the voices of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people from Uganda, Britain, China, South Africa, El Salvador, Norway, Australia, Brazil and the USA. There were so many voices at times it was hard to take it in and fully connect.

The Writing on the Wall’ is a travelling show that has now exhibited in Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and various sites in New York. It is the result of a collaboration between conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas; design studio Openbox; architectural firm MASS Design Group; and Dr Baz Dreisinger, founder of Incarceration Nations Network, a think-tank and global organisation that supports, instigates and seeks to popularise prison reform around the world – and had its UK launch this month.

Dr Dreisinger gathered some of the writing shown on the installation walls from places she visited when researching Incarceration Nations, a first-person odyssey through a number of prisons across the globe that tells the stories of men and women in prison in order to demand a rethinking of the modern prison complex – which has grown to imprison over 11 million people worldwide. The installation, through space and very human words, invites empathic understanding of not just the experience of confinement in prison but also the global meaning and consequences of incarceration.

But so many words reduce emotional engagement, for me at least, as I felt the profound individual experience of each author was overwhelmed by the scale of the outpourings. Nevertheless, the exhibition’s visual impact works without question. It challenges those viewing to make sense of what they are being shown, perhaps to think and question just how much good locking people away and warehousing them in prison is doing for humanity?

Portraits of the incarcerated

Elsewhere in the USA, well regarded French photographer JR is also using his art to draw attention to prison, rehabilitation and restorative justice issues.

His latest project turns the roof of Tehachapi Maximum Security Prison in California into a display canvas. Photographs taken in the prison are transferred on to 338 squares, which make up a huge mural featuring prisoners, prison staff, family members and victims of crime. The image can be seen from the sky or viewed online. An accompanying app links to the voices of 13 people in the mural, each talking about their engagement with the prison system.

Evidently, JR’s ambition, having already worked with prisoners at Rikers Island, was to use the ‘wow’ factor of an aerial mural to encourage people to access the app, listen, and better understand personal stories about gang culture, redemption, rehabilitation and the value of restorative justice initiatives. He painstakingly worked with the prison authorities to make this mural happen and engaged the prisoners by not only featuring them in the artwork, but involving them in its production and transplanting the image through wheat painting onto the roof of Tehachapi.

The result is that the architecture of the prison estate becomes the landscape for a beautiful aerial mural and photography intervention, which utilises technology to enable the stories of those photographed to be heard.

What can we learn?

Both the mural at Tehachapi and ‘The Writing on the Wall’ utilise a sense of scale, innovation and the power of personal stories to highlight the impact imprisonment has people across the world. Back home in the UK, where we have record levels of imprisonment, these creative approaches could not be more pertinent. As my co-director at the Design Against Crime Research Centre, Adam Thorpe, and I note in our introduction to ‘Making it out of prison – designing for change through “making”’:

Given that the UK put more people in prison than any other European country and the dire state of the criminal justice system, there is an urgent need for change.

The full essay features in Clinks and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance’s book Crime and Consequence, a collection of responses to what should happen to people who commit criminal offences. I hope that the bold creative approaches from the USA, and the work of groups such as the Incarcerated Nations Network, can encourage a better understanding of what constitutes “crime”, “punishment” and “justice” for us all.


Image: The Writing On The Wall, courtesy of Dr Lorraine Gamman