Duke, The New School and Others Examine Mass Incarceration in Exhibit

Rikers Island, New York City's main prison complex, is the subject of the first of a traveling exhibition on mass incarceration in America.
Rikers Island, New York City's main prison complex, is the subject of the first of a traveling exhibition on mass incarceration in America.

This month, Duke University students partnered with a New School-led coalition of 500 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 20 cities to launch States of Incarceration, the first national traveling multi-media exhibition and to explore mass incarceration in the United States. In 2017, the exhibition will travel to Durham.

Led by Professors Jessica Namakkal and Robin Kirk, the Duke project seeks to highlight a local aspect of mass incarceration -- the long history of the death penalty in the state. "Duke students are working to reach outside of the university and understand the issues and struggles that face significant numbers of North Carolinians," Namakkal said. “The project provided students with a platform to examine both their own place within the state as well the system as a whole.”

The exhibition and project will launch April 14-16 at The New School in New York City before traveling to the 19 other communities that created it. In each community, the exhibition and project will focus on an issue of incarceration specific to that community.

While national bipartisan support for criminal justice reform grows on Capitol Hill, local communities are deeply divided over how to change the system. In North Carolina, students attempted to obtain historical records of the death penalty from state archives, but were denied because of a poorly interpreted law. Kirk noted that this is part of a broader attempt to keep dangerous stories from being told.

“At a time when juries are more and more voting for life, it’s significant that our own history is being kept from us,” Kirk said. “But this project means our story will be seen by even more people and we’re excited to be a part of this great effort.”

A national launch event on April 14 will feature a conversation with Venida Browder, mother of Kalief Browder, whose arrest at age 16 for the alleged crime of stealing a backpack and subsequent three-year imprisonment at Rikers Island without trial sparked national debate about solitary confinement and calls to shut down the jail.

The States of Incarceration exhibition features interviews with formerly incarcerated people, corrections officers, and policy advocates; images capturing the evolution of crime and punishment in different contexts; and data demonstrating the explosive growth of incarceration and its impact on American society. It will be on view at The New School’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center April 3 to 24.

States of Incarceration also includes a web platform, statesofincarceration.org; public dialogues; a “Shape the Debate” mobile campaign; and a podcast series.

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