States of Incarceration at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans

States of Incarceration Explores Roots of National Issue in Local Communities

This comprehensive public history project aims to serve as a national public reckoning with mass incarceration by viewing the issue through local communities.
States of Incarceration at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, Louisiana. The exhibition, which was created by students at the University of New Orleans in collaboration with the Humanities Action Lab and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, was shown at the museum from April 6, 2017 – May 1, 2017. Photograph by Chris Choi. Courtesy Humanities Action Lab.

By Mariam I. Williams

What does a man imprisoned for life want his legacy to be? What is the purpose of women’s prisons? How does the rate of incarceration among American Indians mimic patterns of displacement during settler colonialism? How does a school’s architecture criminalize the children attending it?

These are just a few of the questions examined in States of Incarceration, an exhibition and comprehensive public history project that aims to serve as a national public reckoning with mass incarceration, the term scholars have given to the exponential increase in the US prison population over the past thirty years, despite a simultaneous decrease in crime rates, and to the socio-political factors contributing to the jump in the number of people behind bars. States of Incarceration includes a national traveling exhibition, web platform, public dialogues, “and curricula on the past, present, and future of incarceration, from the vantage point of twenty different communities.”[1] Launched on April 14, 2016, with a two-day national summit at The New School, the project is the culmination of two years of planning among twenty participating universities in seventeen US cities. Using tools of the truth and reconciliation process—including dialogue and storytelling—students and faculty at the universities and individuals in surrounding communities who have been directly affected by mass incarceration have “explored the deep historical roots of the issue, shared personal stories related to it, and strategized ways of enacting policy change.”[2]

The Humanities Action Lab Takes Shape 

States of Incarceration (SOI) is a project of the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), based at The New School. Liz Šev?enko, HAL’s founder and director, described the organization as “a collaboration among twenty colleges and universities, each working with local justice issue organizations and public spaces to create national public history projects on contested contemporary issues.”[3] The foundations for HAL were laid in 2009, when President Barack Obama’s promise to close GITMO—the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—inspired members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to consider how they could build public awareness of the site to help people confront its long history. Following a conference about fostering a national dialogue on Guantánamo Bay, several universities, organizations, and individuals created the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. The project involved students collaborating with their communities to examine the local aspect of a shared national concern. They then connected this local story to the larger national story presented in a traveling exhibit developed by HAL principals. In the process of developing the Guantánamo project, Šev?enko realized, ”We had hit upon a way of working that could activate other issues.” She further explained that curating an exhibition about the local dimension of a contested issue about which people had previously known little becomes an act of civic engagement.[4]

Humanities Action Lab participants brainstormed who should be involved in States of Incarceration and how they might be engaged, 2015. Courtesy Red Dog Productions.


In 2013, ten universities that had worked on the Guantánamo project committed to forming the HAL partnership. They subsequently were joined by ten additional universities that either had heard about the process and asked to participate or came onboard as a result of targeted recruiting in the South and southeastern United States, areas not represented among the original partners. The partners decided to address a different contemporary issue every three years. Mass incarceration stood out as the issue to address first because “everywhere the GITMO project traveled, local people talked about domestic experiences of incarceration and how they had been affected by it,” Šev?enko said.[5] A $484,769 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2014 helped launch States of Incarceration (then named Global Dialogues). An additional $250,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities in 2016 enabled HAL to continue the project.

Exploring Issues through the Humanities

The Humanities Action Lab draws its name from the fields in which the scholars who launched the Guantánamo project work. They asked themselves what value the humanities could add to the current conversation on mass incarceration. Michele Alexander’s bestselling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) had introduced many outside academia, criminal justice, and activism to the concept of mass incarceration. The book argues that since the end of the Civil War, state and federal laws have been altered to usurp African American freedom and have created the current racialized caste system based on felony conviction. Alexander and others have relied heavily on quantitative data and graphs to communicate the exponential growth of the incarceration rate—from fewer than 350,000 persons in 1970 to 2.3 million in 2010. Though compelling, Šev?enko said, this data leaves something out.

“Missing from current public debate about criminal justice reform was humanizing a system that is deliberately dehumanizing, particularly to incarcerated people,” she said.[6] Human connection, storytelling, visual culture—the elements of the humanities disciplines—haven’t been as prominent as quantitative data in public dialogue. Also absent has been an understanding of the multiple roots of incarceration. Alexander cites the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as among the deepest roots for African American men. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime [emphasis added] whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So, while this amendment abolished chattel slavery as it is commonly understood in the United States, it permitted convict leasing through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.

Contributors to States of Incarceration identified the many issues related to incarceration, including mental health, social justice, and colonization, during a brainstorming session, January 2015. Courtesy Red Dog Productions.

In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment, today’s patterns of incarceration can be traced to the displacement of Native Americans and to immigration. Šev?enko said HAL partners felt that in order to confront mass incarceration and shape public policy surrounding it, they had “a mandate to look at history’s persistence,” including how people have disrupted the penal system.[7] Additionally, because criminal justice is enforced primarily on the state level and its histories and effects are specific to locality, HAL partners thought it was important to incorporate diverse local stories. The result is a public history exhibit and complementary programming that give an overview of the issue nationally and addresses site-specific histories.

HAL partners approached SOI in much the same way they did the GITMO Memory Project. Each university began its investigation in the fall of 2015 with a course that researched an aspect of mass incarceration and sent students into their surrounding communities to find local stories. History graduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and community advocates focused on “how ideas about women and gender have been used to justify the creation of new jails and prisons for women in Massachusetts,”[8] beginning with the creation of one of the nation’s first separate prisons for women in 1877. Graduate students in the history department and public history program at the University of California Riverside explored ways young people of color and those with disabilities have been disproportionately subjected to technologies and cultures of control, from state institutions for “juvenile delinquents” and “uncivilized” Native American children in the 1890s to punitive testing and cell-like school buildings today. Working with the Youth Justice Coalition, a Los Angeles–based advocacy organization, they also considered how local youth activists are resisting criminalization.

In the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862, Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple, center, wearing a white robe and a cleric’s stole, attempted to convert Dakota prisoners at the Fort Snelling concentration camp to Christianity, 1863. University of Minnesota students feature this photo in their portion of SOI. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

At the University of Minnesota, history graduate and undergraduate students “worked across disciplines to investigate the disproportionate rate of American Indian incarceration in the state. [They] brought together archival sources, community interviews, and statistical data to establish a case for Carceral Colonialism,” a term that describes how the surveillance and detention of Native people in the twenty-first century recreate the violent patterns of settler colonialism.[9] In Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate both within the United States and among all nations of the world and home of Angola, a former plantation and now the largest maximum security prison in the United States, undergraduate and graduate students in the history department at the University of New Orleans and the university’s Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies asked inmates at Angola to send them the stories of loved ones who died while they themselves remained incarcerated. Their project explored issues of race, forced labor, surveillance, and incarceration’s effects on families.

Artist Sheila Phipps of Meraux, Louisiana, paints portraits of men incarcerated at Angola prison and exhibits them in her Innocence Exhibition series to raise awareness of wrongful convictions. She painted this portrait of her son, McKinley Phipps, who has been incarcerated at Angola since 2010. The portrait features prominently in the States of Incarceration traveling and online exhibits. Courtesy Humanities Action Lab.

Students contributed their research findings to the SOI web portal and to the brick-and-mortar traveling exhibit. The exhibit will have travelled to sites in all twenty university communities by October 2018; complementary programming featuring dialogues or forums with the public and storytelling by local people affected by mass incarceration is also scheduled at each site. For example, in New Orleans, high school students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts performed prisoners’ stories as monologues. University of California Riverside and partnering organizations cohosted a public dialogue on strategies for dismantling systemic injustice against youth.


The SOI web portal allows visitors to examine issues state-by-state or by national topic. Screenshot by author, August 17, 2017.

States of Incarceration is designed for both digital and in-person consumption. Via the web portal, visitors can explore content state by state by clicking on a map of the United States or issue by issue by selecting from a list of tags. However, the ways national issues manifest in local communities are difficult to see online unless site visitors are willing to sift through each tag, according to Šev?enko. She noted that the traveling exhibit, which was designed by the Brooklyn, New York–based design firm Matter Practice, remains important for the connections it makes between states; it also allows local people to connect with each other. “We make the physical exhibit a priority because of what happens when people encounter each other in space,” she said, adding that people usually find their relationship to the issues and stories through the accompanying public programming. Additionally, Šev?enko said the traveling exhibit makes the timeline, a graph that attempts to communicate racial disparities in incarceration, a visceral experience. Even designing the graph for the physical exhibit was a challenge; if done “true-to-scale,” she observed, “the graph would’ve shot through the sky.”[10]

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. States of Incarceration features a timeline with a graph that breaks down this number into multiple demographics, showing incarceration rates for various populations in the United States. Humanities Action Lab director Liz Šev?enko said that if the graph had been produced “true to scale, [it] would’ve shot through the sky.” Photo by Chris Choi. Courtesy Humanities Action Lab.
SOI in the Mid-Atlantic

States of Incarceration began its tour in the Mid-Atlantic with the New School conference, where the exhibit included subway maps that brought Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, into plain view. SOI returns to the Mid-Atlantic on September 2, 2017, when Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, will exhibit students’ examination of the impact upon former inmates of the 2014 closing of nearby Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. The exhibit stops at Rutgers University–Newark October 18 through December 15, 2017, and at Rutgers University–New Brunswick January 22 through March 9, 2018, where students in the history and American studies departments explored Seabrook Farms’ use of labor by incarcerated Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Aerial photo of Rikers Island prison complex in New York City, included in The New School’s part of States of Incarceration. Courtesy Darcy Bender.
This photo from the Rutgers-New Brunswick exhibition pictures, from left to right, Fuju Sasaki, Ellen Nakamura, and Harold Ouchida, at Seabrook Farms, 1940s . Nakamura was among those Japanese Americans interned at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas after the outbreak of World War II until she became a recruiter for Seabrook Farms food production facility in Bridgeton, NJ. Suffering from a wartime labor shortage, in 1944 Charles Seabrook, CEO of Seabrook Farms, began employing internees. He invited representatives from internment camps to visit Seabrook and consider it a viable option for relocating internees. The representatives would investigate jobs, housing, and community life, as well as the local ”climate” or attitudes of people in nearby communities. Courtesy Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.

At Rutgers University–Newark, graduate students in the American studies and history departments approached mass incarceration through immigration and asylum, topics that are likely to resonate with the current political climate. In collaboration with Rutgers–Newark’s Newest Americans project, a three-year longitudinal study of immigrant experiences in New Jersey, and two local immigrant support organizations—the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and First Friends of New Jersey and New York—students researched events leading up to the 1995 uprising of detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center, a privately-run facility near Rutgers–Newark that holds immigrants, including asylum seekers, under Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. During the uprising, detainees went on a hunger strike, then broke furniture and windows to protest inhumane conditions at the facility. Subsequently, ten detainees became plaintiffs in Jama v. Esmor Correctional Services, the first case in which detainees were given the right to sue a private corporation.[11] Students explored “the court case and the subsequent life of the Elizabeth Detention Center, placing these events within the context of immigration and asylum law, globalization, the War on Terror, and privatization of immigrant detention.”[12] Entitled “Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention,” their contribution to SOI’s exhibit and website “attempts to highlight the voices and agency of detainees while examining how privatization, race, and the law have shaped the detention system” in the United States.[13]

Screenshot by author, Rutgers-Newark SOI web portal, August 17, 2017.

Mary Rizzo, associate director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives, and Tim Raphael, director of The Center for Migration and the Global City, supervised the project at Rutgers–Newark. Raphael had learned of HAL through Andy Urban, a historian at Rutgers–New Brunswick who had been involved in the Guantánamo Bay project. Both Rizzo and Raphael were eager to participate in a project that explored contemporary issues through public history. In his position at the Center for Migration and the Global City, Raphael “had worked closely with the AFSC Immigrant Rights Program and the Rutgers Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic on immigrant detention issues in New Jersey.”[14] Additionally, he had taught classes on local immigrant detention issues and supplied student translators for AFSC lawyers through First Friends. Rizzo, on the other hand, acknowledged that she had only a “basic knowledge” about mass incarceration (as did most of the project faculty, according to Šev?enko), so when it came to immigration detention, she was “learning alongside [her] students.” Elizabeth Detention Center is less than six miles from campus, but prior to the class, Rizzo noted, “not one of my students realized that it even existed. We talked a great deal about how that invisibility is a tactic to keep the detention system out of public scrutiny.”[15]

With the help of AFSC, the professors arranged for the students to tour the center. Rizzo described what they saw this way:

Even though my students and I had been reading about detention and this specific center all semester, being there was still a shocking and upsetting experience. The detainees are not allowed outside at all, so they live twenty-four hours a day in cement warehouse dorms, though they have an “outdoor recreation” area, which is a room the size of a volleyball court with some skylights at the top. . . . There are no activities for [the detainees] to do besides watch TV, read, play games. We spoke to a few detainees, under supervision of the guards. Many did not speak English, but they mostly asked for our help to get out. It was heartbreaking.[16]


Making, Evaluating, and Extending an Impact

Rizzo reported her students’ interaction with AFSC and First Friends gave them a real sense of purpose. They also appreciated receiving feedback from content experts and the HAL staff on the wording and design of their panel for the traveling exhibit. Overall, student reflections indicate that collaborating with people directly affected by mass incarceration in order to curate the exhibit increased their knowledge of the topic and “shaped their understanding of its specific history.”[17] The project also gave student curators who had little previous knowledge about mass incarceration insight into how to present the subject to the audiences they hoped to reach in ways that might deliver the most impact. SOI also inspired some students to see museums as spaces where social justice issues can be addressed.

Students’ experiences as novice public history practitioners provides one gauge of SOI’s impact. So will HAL’s evaluation plan. It will attempt to measure to what extent participants do the following: develop a better understanding of mass incarceration’s complexities, understand and articulate their perspectives on mass incarceration and their relationship to it, believe they have the civic capacity to make change, and identify and/or take concrete actions to create change. With participants ranging from faculty and students unfamiliar with mass incarceration or public history to community members directly impacted by incarceration, Šev?enko said a successful project appears differently across and within different constituencies but always aims to interrogate “the humanities’ relationship to participation” and how the humanities can be “a form of action and civic participation.”[18]

Šev?enko also aims to expand SOI. The project currently covers seventeen states, with the Midwest and Mountain West largely absent from the map. Šev?enko said SOI attempts to address this gap by means of the interactive Add Your State feature appearing as a tab at the bottom of the website, which invites additional participation, and by expanding the program. In 2016, HAL received funds from the Mellon Foundation to help support six new universities plan their participation. Two of those six inquired about the project through “Add Your State.” With the Mellon funding, HAL has directed SOI’s attention to community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges. “We’re dedicated to continuing to build new chapters,” said Šev?enko,[19] and strategic priorities include expanding to communities most directly affected by incarceration and to academic institutions with faculty and digital capacities to carry out the project. The new additions will allow SOI to continue programming at least through 2019.

According to HAL’s website, partners are in the planning stage of HAL’s next project, which will explore migration and climate/environmental justice. More details about the project and opportunities for collaboration can be found here.


Photograph by Megan Coleman. Courtesy the author.

Mariam Williams is a writer and digital editor at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities and a writer/producer with History Making Productions. She holds a master of fine arts in creative writing and certificate in public history from Rutgers University–Camden.

[1] Liz Šev?enko, “Remembering the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Museums & Social Issues 12, no. 1 (2017): 3–13.

[2]National Project Explores the History and Future of Mass Incarceration through Exhibition and Story Exchange,” New School Pressroom, April 4, 2016.

[3] Liz Šev?enko, email to the author, January 26, 2017.

[4] Liz Šev?enko, interview with the author, January 25, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Šev?enko interview.

[8]UMass Amherst Public History Program is Part of Coalition to Receive $250,000 NEH Grant for Major Study of U.S. Incarceration,” UMass Amherst News & Media Relations, February 24, 2016.

[9]Minnesota: Carceral Colonialism: Imprisonment in Indian Country,” States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories.

[10] Šev?enko interview.

[11] In a 2007 settlement, the court awarded damages to the plaintiffs.

[12] Julia Thomas, “Partner Spotlight: Rutgers University-Newark,” Humanities Action Lab, July 28, 2015.

[13] “New Jersey: Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention,” States of Incarceration.

[14] Mary Rizzo email to the author, February 10, 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Mary Rizzo email to the author, February 9, 2017.

[17] Šev?enko, “Remembering the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

[18] Šev?enko interview.

[19] Ibid.