Traveling exhibit ‘States of Incarceration’ arrives in Lansing

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Tuesday night at the Michigan History Center, a new panel created by students at Michigan State University was unveiled for the traveling States of Incarceration exhibit, currently at the museum for an eight-month run and ends on May 19. An exhibit created by the Humanities Action Lab, which focuses on mass incarceration in the United States, created by former inmates and students across the country.

As part of Michigan State history professor, Dr. LaShawn Harris, Histories of the Carceral State class last semester, students went to Jackson State Penitentiary to access public records of the prison. Harris’ students, with teaching assistant and MSU graduate student Sean M. Wright, analyzed poems and drawings of the men of Jackson State in their pursuit of answering their research question of whether or not prisons can be places of leisure and creativity.

Wright, lifted the cloth from the panel and revealed the students’ work.

“You could feel it walking into the room, the kind of relevancy the topic had on students’ minds and that ability to pair in class speaker experiences with people who have been incarcerated and actually being able to see that grounded in the books and the articles that we were reading in class, that kind of relevancy and immediacy, it’s so palpable in the classroom and really breeds an atmosphere of critical and deep thinking” said Wright

Shana Russell, program manager for States of Incarceration at the Humanities Action Lab, worked with the class on the new panel of the exhibition.

“We are at this interesting moment as it relates to mass incarceration, or we were when the exhibit came out during the Obama presidency. And there was this across the aisle bipartisan agreement that something is wrong. But I think people can’t participate in making a difference without the information, and it’s a lot of information. So it’s much easier to put an exhibit in a museum or in a library than it is to go to government and community meetings, which can be really inaccessible. So it’s important to know the roots of the problem in order to figure out the problem, and I think that’s where the exhibit really helps a lot,” said Russell.

States of Incarceration brings attention to the importance of the rising tide of mass incarceration across the United States, which is why museum Director Suzanne Fischer, says it’s necessary not only for the exhibition to be displayed, but the role of museums in general.

“I think it’s really important that museums and cultural institutions can be a place where people can come together and talk about important issues of our time,” said Fischer.

Harris’ students learned a valuable skill because of their work and research Wright said.

“Empathy, I think that’s one of the great skills from my perspective which history can teach you, but of course when you pair that with a topic like the history of incarceration. I think building that sense of empathy for peoples of different perspectives and particular different incarcerated perspectives can only build your character as a person and just help you become a better human being,” said Wright.

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