Exploring 'States of Incarceration' at the Michigan History Museum


Traveling national exhibition comes to Lansing

By Suzanne Fischer
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Michigan's history of incarceration is full of contradictions.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, one of the first institutions proposed by the new governor was a prison. A decade later, Michigan became the world's first English-speaking government to ban the death penalty. By the early 20th century, Michigan State Prison in Jackson was the largest walled prison in the world.

Now through May 19, 2019, the Michigan History Center, a division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is hosting a national traveling exhibition called States of Incarceration at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing.

The exhibit uses history and culture to tackle today's urgent questions about incarceration the act of confining someone against his or her will in prisons, jails, detention centers, and some kinds of schools and hospitals.

The huge rise in the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. over the past 40 years is called mass incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union website, the U.S. incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent, with 2.3 million people in jail and prison, far outpacing population growth and crime.

"This exhibit is a great opportunity to think through some of the questions and contradictions surrounding incarceration in Michigan and the United States," said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center.

More than 700 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities, spearheaded by the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey, created the States of Incarceration exhibit project.

The individuals grew up in a United States that incarcerates more of its people, including immigrants, than any country in the world and at any point in its history.

Recently, a new bipartisan consensus concedes the criminal justice system is broken. There is intense conflict over how to fix it.

In 2015, the students and former inmates came together to ask: How did this happen? What new questions does the past challenge us to ask about what is happening now? To find answers, they examined their own communities' histories.

Through courses at 30 universities, local teams shared stories, searched archives and visited correctional facilities. Each team created one piece of the exhibition, which was launched in New York City in April 2016.

The project's run at the Michigan History Museum is a collaborative partnership between the museum and Michigan State University.

During the fall 2018 semester, MSU history professor Dr. LaShawn Harris and her students will explore various ways Michigan prisons served as possible sites of creativity, pleasure and leisure during the early 20th century. They will contribute a piece to the exhibition, which will be installed in early 2019.

"Students will research the formal and informal rehabilitation programs, including education, art, music and sports, that Michigan prisons offered (during that time)," Harris said. "Students will also look for inmates' experiences within creative rehabilitative prison programs."

Michigan History Museum staff also supplemented the exhibition with information and artifacts about the history of incarceration in Michigan.

The exhibit includes exceptional historical artifacts from the Michigan History Center's collections, including rare prisoner photographs; elaborate furniture made at the Jackson prison; interactive experiences and exhibit components developed specifically for children.

To help the 65,000 school children who visit the history museum every year connect with these complicated histories, the museum developed a section on the history of youth incarceration in Michigan's reform schools.

In 1856, the State House of Correction for Juvenile Offenders opened in Lansing. Boys and girls under 18 were sent there for offenses ranging from larceny and vagrancy to foul language.

Girls were sent to their own institutions beginning in the 1860s. In 1893, the Lansing school became the Industrial School for Boys, where residents learned trades they could use upon their release.

"Sometimes, children worked at the schools, in the fields or in furniture workshops. At other times, they were indentured to work in private homes for a set amount of time," said Rachel Clark, Michigan History Center education specialist. "County agents investigated 'host' families and did periodic welfare checks on the indentured children."

Today's foster care and juvenile-justice programs learned both positive and negative lessons from Michigan's reform schools. Elementary-age visitors to the exhibit can follow a boy and a girl through the schools and are encouraged to ask, "what is fair?"

Additional public programs scheduled during the exhibition's run will include film screenings, panel discussions, and presentations that explore the history of incarceration in Michigan and the United States, as well as current bipartisan efforts to reform the state's criminal justice system.

Programs are supported by the Michigan Humanities Council. Admission to the exhibition is free with regular museum admission. The Michigan History Museum is open seven days a week. For museum hours and information on the exhibition and its programs, visit the museum's website at michigan.gov/museum.


Suzanne Fischer is the museum director for the Michigan History Center.

Published: Tue, Dec 18, 2018