"Louisiana is basically the prison capital of the world, if you look at the statistics," says University of New Orleans Midlo Center co-director Mary Niall Mitchell. "We incarcerate more people than just about anybody."
Mitchell, project co-leader Benjamin Weber and a group of University of New Orleans (UNO) students will call attention to this problem with UNO's contribution to a traveling exhibit that opens at Ogden Museum of Southern Art April 6. With text, photos, and interactive modules, "States of Incarceration" takes viewers through the history of mass incarceration in the U.S. - a highly relevant topic in the state where over 67,000 people (not a typo) were incarcerated in 2015.
This exhibit originally was created by students at the Humanities Action Lab out of New York's New School. As the project grew, organizers reached out to universities around the country to make contributions based on issues relevant to different regions.
At UNO, a mixed group of undergraduate and graduate students began working on the project through classes on policing and prisons. Ultimately they would go on to tour the Angola State Penitentiary and participate in a postcard exchange with incarcerated people to inform the materials they created for the exhibit.
"There's this idea of breaking down walls that physically and mentally separate free people from incarcerated people," Mitchell says. "[Students] do come away with a sense that this is ... a problem that affects every community in some way."
UNO students focused on Angola because of its long history and its role in race-based incarceration. The Louisiana portion of the exhibit shows black-and-white historical photos of everyday life at the facility, from the magazine office (the Angolite) to the morgue. They're a window into a world it's easy to forget about, and it's jarring to realize the dusky photographs reflect not a historical artifact but a facility that's still running to this day.
The exhibit also includes artworks created by students at the Travis Hill School, which educates students involved with the juvenile justice system. Local artists helped students paint self-portraits (one of which is painted as a mug shot) and create papier-mache masks, which hang just beyond a row of quotes and statements from famous prison scholars and advocates.
UNO worked with local advocacy and social justice organizations such as VOTE, Ashe Cultural Arts Center and the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights to facilitate the project. Mitchell also points out there are many elements to the exhibition which have taken on new significance since the presidential election, as news breaks about changes to immigration and policing policy.
Many UNO students approached project leaders to share how this project had affected their understanding of imprisonment. Due to the high rate of incarceration in the state, especially among communities of color, many students have a personal connection to jail and prisons or even have been involved in the system themselves.
"[Young people] come into the world and assume things have always been a certain way," Mitchell says. "Our job is to take students who have inherited a society with problems, and give them a historical context for the social issues that they're confronting."
There's an opening reception for "States of Incarceration" with music, food and drinks at 6 p.m. April 6. The exhibit runs through April.