Immersive art, community engagement and conversations in Pennsylvania changed perceptions of who is incarcerated in rural America and small towns.
Conceptual artist Jesse Krimes has exhibited his art, which explores issues of justice and incarceration, around the world. But Jesse says that over time, he realized he was putting his work in front of audiences who already shared his vision of the need for criminal justice reform.
Jesse knew the rate of incarceration in small cities and rural communities was rising, even as it was declining in major cities. And Black and Latinx people were disproportionately incarcerated there as well. And he also believed that he needed to reach people who might be less aware of the inhumanity of the justice system.
That’s what inspired him to create Voices: Safety, Justice and Community in America’s Heartland, an immersive exhibition supported by the Art for Justice Fund. Erected in 2019, the exhibition was a metaphor for the maze of the criminal justice system, made tangible by creating a three-acre corn maze with an easy way in, seven different paths, but only one way out. A farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – widely known as Amish country – agreed to let Jesse use his cornfield to create the maze, which had 13 dead ends. At each dead end was a personal narrative gathered from people who were or are incarcerated, their families and neighbors, interwoven with local and national statistics to educate visitors on the facts of mass incarceration.
At one point in the maze was a replica of a prison cell, which drove home the stark reality of living in a tiny space for months, years or even decades.
“You feel it,” says Russell Craig, an Art for Justice grantee partner who experienced the exhibition. “You feel that, you know, metaphor symbolism of like navigating your way through the system and back into society is like a maze … especially when you don’t have any direction or any help. You know, some people never make it out while some people take a long time to navigate through the system.”
“Part of the driving force behind this project [was] to create the space for us to just see each other as human beings…not an inmate, not a number, not a judge, not a probation officer but as human beings.”
With more than two million people behind bars, the enormity of mass incarceration can be hard for many people to grasp. What does a number like that even look like? But the power of Jesse’s exhibition was that it made the concept of mass incarceration – which can feel abstract and faceless – into something “profoundly human,” says Jasmine Heiss, of the Vera Institute of Justice, one of the other partners in the project along with PLUS1.
To address the very real challenge of encouraging people to attend an art exhibition who might not otherwise be so inclined, Jesse turned it into a community event. His goal was to catalyze conversations around criminal justice reform in rural areas. Over a series of Saturdays, there were conversations with formerly incarcerated people such as Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, and entertainment by Grammy Award-winning musicians.
There were also 24 hands-on workshops, where participants were asked to search through a variety of images and select those that represented safety to them. Interestingly, not one of the images people chose had anything to do with police, jails or prison systems.
“That was a powerful tool to use that creative process to capture what people conceive as the thing that makes them safe, versus what we spend all our taxpayer dollars on in the name of safety,” Jesse says.
He then collected all the images people had chosen, transferred them to prison bedsheets and gave them to Amish women who hand stitched 22 quilts for display in a barn along with the history of incarceration in the United States. For visitors to the exhibition, it provided a whole new perspective on what safety really means to people – which has nothing to do with prisons and police.
Jesse hopes that other local artists will take inspiration from his project and create those of their own, specific to the area where they live, that will “capture the interest of their communities and bring people into these conversations who wouldn’t necessarily come into them otherwise,” he says.
Ultimately, Voices was intended to bring the issue of mass incarceration close to home, and prompt people to reimagine what safety and justice look like.
“Part of the driving force behind this project [was] to create the space for us to just see each other as human beings,” Jesse says. “Not an inmate, not a number, not a judge, not a probation officer but as human beings.”