Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History
On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison. While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform. This event is a defining moment of our times. Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come. While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.
One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan. Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years. The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994. Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.
This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014. This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration. The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.