USF's Museum Blog

The Culture of Incarceration

by Marjorie Schwarzer

imagesAs the high profile Ai Wei Wei exhibition opens on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, let’s consider some sobering statistics. Americans comprise five percent of the world’s population. Yet, the U.S. incarcerates nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners (Herivel & Wright, 2007). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation holds under lock and key 1.5 million inmates, with an additional 5.7 million adults comprising probation and parolee counts. And these numbers do not include juvenile offenders nor the spouses and children impacted when a family member is behind bars.


HH05_0The majority of those caught in the penal system are first-time offenders; over 50 percent were convicted for possession or sale of narcotics. Since the War on Drugs and enactment of habitual offender (three strikes) laws in twenty-five states, the number of American prisons has grown at an alarming rate, especially in rural communities enticed by promises of jobs. During the 1990s and early 2000s, a new prison opened every fifteen days. Budgets grew by over 500%, with large contracts going to private suppliers of all manner of bedding, clothing, food, concertina wire. Despite the influx of money, conditions in American jails and prisons are generally deplorable. Overcrowding, rancid food, minimal exposure to the natural light, insufficient health care, and relentless loud noise are common even in minimum security situations. Gang violence, hunger strikes and constant surveillance add to the stress. To make matters worse, rehabilitation programs like college courses and vocational training have been cut in favor of “get-tough-lock’em-up-and-throw away the key” penal policies and practices touted by vote-seeking politicians. (Greene, 2006; Hunter & Wagner, 2007). As justice policy analyst Judith Greene explains: “The astonishing upward shift in our incarceration rate has swept this country into the uncharted territory of mass incarceration.” (p. 26).

Prisoner art installation project at Arizona State University's museum (artist Gregory Sale).

Art installation project at Arizona State University’s museum (artist Gregory Sale).


Economists, sociologists and criminologists largely agree: the current U.S. penal system is inefficient and ineffective at deterring crime and making society safer. It is also inequitable. Harvard University sociologist Bruce Western has characterized the gargantuan American penal system as a “novel institution in a uniquely American system of social inequality. (Western, p. 11).” A look at who is behind bars not only reflects American politics and economics, but a legacy of racism as well as discrimination against its poorest and least educated citizens. Over 40 percent of inmates are Black; 20 percent are Hispanic. Forty percent did not complete high school.

This installation at Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) by artist Nick Cassaway portrayed juvenile incarceration.

This installation at Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) by artist Nick Cassaway portrayed juvenile incarceration.

orange-is-the-new-black-season-2-trailer“Amazingly,” writes former inmate Paul Wright, “American pop culture has largely succeeded in … ensuring that the general population of non-prisoners does not believe that what occurs in prisons affects them.” Witness the current success of television shows like Orange is the New Black. Now editor-in-chief of Prison Legal News, Wright has written extensively about the media’s role in promoting and exploiting prison as a ghastly underworld culture, far from the realities of “normal” day-to-day life. Through sensationalist reality TV shows like COPS, LockUp and Inside, law enforcement professionals and prisoners provide nightly entertainment to millions of viewers. Switch the channel to MTV, and watch entertainers sporting orange jumpsuits and rapping about life in prison These popular shows are so skewed that, in the words of sociologist John Leveille, “they tell us more about the values of mass media than they present factual information about prisons.”

UnknownWright has also documented how the clothing industry grossly exploits prison culture. “The baggy ill fitting clothes of the prison yard are sold as cool fashion statement,” he reports, ”The most blatant, and successful, example is the Prison Blues line of clothing, made by the Oregon prison system using prisoner slave labor. Oregon prison officials market the clothes with catchy slogans like ‘Made on the inside to be worn on the outside.’ One ad shows a picture of the jeans next to an electric chair with the caption ‘Sometimes our jeans last longer than the guys who make them.”

What does America’s culture of incarceration have to do with museums? It is worth noting that one of the nation’s most visited museums is San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island. As Wright has observed: “Chambers of commerce in Leavenworth, Kansas and Canon City, Colorado, market their many prisons as must see sites for tourists. Expensive ad campaigns use catchy slogans like ‘How about doin’ some time in Leavenworth?’ … Tours of actual prisons are not offered. Instead, tourists can see prison museums and prisons that were closed due to their age.” Over 100 prison museums operate in the world; two-thirds are in the United States. This does not include the ubiquitous historical society displays of prison-related material culture like shackles, handcuffs, and correctional officer badges, or popular (and money-making) museum-prison programs like “Halloween Behind Bars,” and “Terror Beyond the Walls.”


Alcatraz Island souvenir

Alcatraz Island souvenir

What kinds of messages do these museums and exhibitions communicate? Are they copacetic with our field’s educational values? Or, do they glorify and titillate in the name of entertainment and voyeurism? In 2012, with professor Kristine Morrissey of University of Washington, I co-edited an issue of the Journal Museums & Social Issues that asked the museum field to think more deeply about the connections between museums and prisons. With Ai Wei Wei’s installation as a lightening rod, perhaps it is time to consider these connections again and how museums can deeply probe the reform of America’s prison system in the name of justice and social responsibility.

Resources: Here are a few of the many resources available to those who wish to research this topic further:

American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project

Journal of Prisoners on Prison A forum for research by convicts, ex-convicts and scholars

Prison Legal News: This independent 56-page monthly magazine provides up-to-date analysis of prisoner rights, court rulings and news about prison issues.

Prison Visitation and Support: PVS trains and coordinates motivated volunteers to visit with inmates in maximum and medium security federal prisons.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Greene, J. (2006). Banking on the Prison Boom. In Herivel, T., & Wright, P. (Eds.) (2007). Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration. (pp. 3 – 26). New York: The New Press.

Herivel, T., & Wright, P. (Eds.) (2007). Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration. New York: The New Press.

Ross, J. I., & Richards, S. C. (2002). Behind Bars: Surviving Prison. Indianapolis: Alpha Books.

Morrissey, K. and Schwarzer, M. eds:  Museums and the Culture of Incarceration, Left Coast Press (2012).

Western, B. (2006). Punishment and Inequity in America. Russell Sage Foundation.

courtesy, Gregory Sale.

courtesy, Gregory Sale.









One comment

  1. Pam mcconville

    Thank you Mrs. Schwarzer for your interesting article. I’m researching the culture of the incarcerated population for one of my Nursing classes and found it very helpful. Pamela Mcconville

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