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"Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration," an exhibition by UD's Troy Richards, has won national honors.

Exploring 'Prisons Today'

Photo courtesy of Troy Richards

Exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary wins national honors

An exhibition at a former penitentiary, which includes an interactive display of written “confessions” from visitors and prisoners created by the University of Delaware’s Troy Richards, has won the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) top award for 2017.

“Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” on display at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, was named the overall award winner in the AAM’s 29th annual Excellence in Exhibition competition. The award was presented last week at the alliance’s annual meeting in St. Louis.

“Prisons Today” highlights the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and seeks to inform visitors about the policies that have driven the growth in prison population.

The exhibit makes use of art installations, interactive touch screens, informative displays and historical videos documenting the evolution of prisons to focus on the human impact of incarceration throughout history as well as in America today.

Richards, associate professor of art and design and interim associate dean for the arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, created “The Criminal Us,” the part of the exhibition that officials say draws the most attention.

The art installation invites visitors to leave an anonymous, written confession of some act they committed. Those notes, displayed alongside ones written by prison inmates, show how little difference there often is between acts that result in imprisonment and those that are never punished by the legal system. As visitors leave their own notes, the installation grows and changes over time.

“It leaves you questioning: What is legal? What is criminal? How many people who are in prison don’t need to be?” said Richards, who came up with the idea for a confession-based project while in art school.

In 1999, he began working with Eastern State, and his installation was on display at the prison during two previous three-year periods beginning around 2000. He began work on the current “Criminal Us” about two years ago, interviewing prisoners and others to learn about the impact of incarceration.

“It’s been a different, and very interesting, experience for me,” Richards said. “I’ve met with prisoners, their families and support groups, and I’ve become much more aware of prisoners’ issues. We think of these [incarcerated] people as so different from us, but that’s not necessarily true.”

Most inmates he’s spoken with were convicted of relatively minor crimes initially, Richards said, but often were imprisoned for more serious offenses after their release. “So much, it seems, turns on that first arrest and imprisonment,” he said.

Communicating with inmates has been difficult because of restrictions and surveillance that prisons impose, he said, and creating the installation itself was a challenge as well.

Richards sometimes found himself in the prison, which ceased operations in 1970, working into the night — “just me and a couple of stray cats,” he says — as he blocked off windows and made other adjustments so that the exhibit would have the lighting he wanted.

“I’m very honored to be part of this and to see how visitors respond to it,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve collected thousands of confessions. People really want to participate.”

About the exhibit and Eastern State

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 with the belief that criminals could redeem themselves and that it was cruel to crowd or mistreat them.

Over the years, it held some of America’s most notorious prisoners, including Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. By the 1930s, the prison that had been built to house 300 inmates instead held 2,000.

Eastern State closed in 1970 and began offering public tours as a historic site in 1994.

“Prisons Today” has received wide national attention within the museum field since its opening in May 2016. It previously won the Institutional Award for Special Achievement, the top award from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums.

The exhibition will run for the next three years with an expected 250,000 visitors every year.

About the AAM competition

Ten museum exhibitions received accolades in this year’s competition from the American Alliance of Museums, the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community.

The overall award winner, “Prisons Today” competed with exhibitions of all types, from those in fine-arts and science museums to historic sites and zoos.

The AAM, founded in 1906, represents more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions and corporate partners in the field.

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