Casting a creative light on prison reform

Emerson Little


At the beginning of November, a group of art historians, activists, educators, and participants directly affected by incarceration gathered together for a three-day symposium, Envisioning the Role of Arts in Criminal Justice Reform Conference, which focused on how art and art-related programs can have a positive impact on prison reform. The conference was held jointly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. Both institutions hosted art exhibitions by various artists that specifically addressed this issue.

Associate Professor of Art History Kate Albers participated in the symposium and will be contributing an essay to the upcoming publication about the conference. Professor Albers’ research focuses on the ways photographic images can create visibility for marginalized communities.

“I was so impressed with the artists and the art work around which the conference was organized,” said Professor Albers. “I was heartened to see the tremendous work underway by an impressive range of participants seeking to bring more humane conditions to prisons; awareness of deep and complex structural changes of these issues; and, ultimately, changes in the way mass incarceration is handled in this country.”

As a graduate student, Professor Albers became interested in criminal justice reform. “I worked at a social justice organization in Boston that provided support and opportunities for people who had just been released from prison,” said Professor Albers. “This was a very vulnerable time and often very difficult to navigate.”

Professor Albers interests led her to pursue further research into the topic, focusing more directly on histories that have been ignored by dominant historical narratives. “This is a topic I cover quite a lot in classes by a range of artists, from the 1930s documentary work of an artist like Dorothea Lange to the more contemporary practice of someone like Zaneli Muholi, who describes her photographic work as visual activism,” said Professor Albers. “On some level, this has to do with the accessibility of photography, but it also ties into long histories of documentary, vernacular, and activist histories of working with photographic images, whether in the realm of art, journalism, or even writing about photography.”

At the three-day symposium she attended, Professor Albers learned about a variety of effective programs in place, ranging from rehabilitative educational programs in prisons, such as the remarkable Prison University Project at San Quentin, to more activist-based organizations, such as the projects run by artist Mark Strandquist in Virginia. “Each has a different end, but, ultimately, [it is] not one best solution, but rather, a range of approaches that collectively increase visibility, promote humanity, educate the general public, and enact legislative change. There should be many, many more programs following these models.”

Professor Albers was particularly impressed with the Prison University Project and, by extension, the podcast Ear Hustle, which is co-produced by the artist Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, who is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison but recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Jerry Brown. Professor Albers said, “The artists Sable Elyse Smith and Maria Gaspar are both doing valuable work, as are the museums and institutions that, in turn, show their work and create further openings for dialogue, education, and inclusion.”

By the end of the symposium, Professor Albers said, “[I am] not sure any of my opinions changed, but I think the conference amplified my sense of empathy on a basic human level, simply by opening my eyes to so many people both personally and deeply affected by the necessity of prison reform and those doing incredible work to that end.”