A Public Reckoning With Mass Incarceration

This week, on the heels of Black Lives Matter activists calling former President Bill Clinton to account for the ravages of the 1994 Crime Bill, and in the wake of his heated defense that this policy was needed to keep black kids from killing other black kids, we have a new opportunity to reflect on why remembering the roots of today's carceral crisis is so critical for confronting it today. There is an extraordinary public installation opening this Thursday in New York City called States of Incarceration.

Back in the fall of 2015, hundreds of students, formerly incarcerated people, corrections officers, families, scholars, photographers, and others came together in an unprecedented collaboration to build a collective memory of the incarceration generation. This convening was made possible by the New School's Humanities Action Lab, which sought to begin a national dialogue on the way in which our nation's criminal justice system operates and what its human costs really have been. Ultimately this project partnered with universities from across the country, asking each of them to shine needed new light on a specific site of the American carceral state in their area. The product of this collaborative endeavor is a traveling exhibit on the past, present, and future of mass incarceration.

Via the States of Incarceration exhibit we do indeed now have a rich and searing public record of how real people have experienced the American carceral state. As one moves from space to space one is asked, for example, to confront what confinement at jails such Rikers Island in New York, or prisons such as Angola in Louisiana, actually looks and feels like. One is also forced to consider the troubling links that exist between our government's policies and actions vis-a-vis Indians in previous centuries, and record rates of Native American incarceration today in states such as Minnesota. Likewise one must contemplate the high price that families have paid for this nation's immigration policy in states such as Texas. From East to West, and North to South, we now have a powerful public accounting of punishment and confinement in the United States.

To a greater extent than most any other public history exhibit, and more pointedly than any policy brief now circulating on criminal justice reform, States of Incarceration captures the experiences of the people who have lived policing, punishment, and prisons in America most directly. Those who view States of Incarceration will find themselves disturbed, moved, and, above all, newly motivated to rethink the ways in which this nation deals with poverty, addiction, mental illness, disorder, violence, law breaking, and migration as well as immigration. This project will travel to 20 cities over the next three years, inviting people in every community it visits to contribute their own histories and memories, and to discuss what they suggest for future change.

And this is the ultimate goal of States of Incarceration. When the Humanities Action Lab decided to zero in on today's carceral crisis, it did so not merely so that our nation might understand the varied and complex origin story of how we came to police and confine more people than any other country on the globe. Nor did it just seek to rescue, and to commemorate, how untold numbers of lives have been forever damaged by this nation's punitive responses to social, economic, and political marginality or distress. The goal was also to encourage ordinary people as well as policy makers to think hard about how we might now undo that damage, and how we might now imagine very different solutions when we face seemingly entrenched or insurmountable problems in our nation. As Liz Sevcenko, the director of the Humanities Action Lab, puts it, "we hope to open a national public reckoning with mass incarceration."

It is way past time for exactly this reckoning and States of Incarceration very much gets us started.