“It’s easily one of the biggest issues facing this country, and at the same time, here at Western, it’s one of the most invisible issues,” David Cahn, co-coordinator at the Social Issues Resource Center said of the plight of the US prison system.
Approximately 2,186,230 people were incarcerated in the US by June 30, 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in their Midyear 2005 report. That’s 738 people per 100,000 citizens, or 1 in 100 adult US residents. Washington State alone has over 17,000 people incarcerated.
The VU Gallery in connection with the SIRC are presenting Prison Nation, a poster exhibit in the VU Gallery addressing the social and political issues that arise from such a high rate of incarceration. The exhibit will run from November 27 to December 15, with a reception on Nov. 30 from 6-8 p.m.. In conjunction with Prison Nation, Books to Prisoners will also be conducting a book drive. The exhibit, sponsored by the Los Angeles based Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), includes both nationally and internationally created posters from the CSPG archive. Some posters included date back to the 1960s and 70s, while some were made earlier this year. The exhibit also showcases the work of Graphic Design students from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and Frostburg State University, Maryland.
Cahn sees Prison Nation as an opportunity to educate college students, a group that traditionally is not directly affected by or aware of the incarceration system, about the implications and the repercussions of the vastly growing prison system.
Currently, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the CSPG website. California alone spends $6 billion annually on prisons, while detaining over 180,000 prisoners within 32 prisons. And within the last decade, the prison industry has become a $40 billion industry, according to the World Socialist Website.
The rate of incarcerated women has risen dramatically recently, as one of the posters to be exhibited asks, “have women become that more dangerous?” In fact, the CSPG website states, “Between 1980 and 2005, the total number of women in prison increased from 13,400 to over 140,000.” Perhaps more startling is the 78 % increase in incarcerated black women over the past five years.
“Somehow we’ve gotten to this point in society where locking people up in boxes has become the answer to our social problems—answers to under funded schools, inaccessible health care, racism in the criminal justice system—with all the issues that arise from these problems, the answer has become locking them up . . . anybody that knows anything about jails or prisons knows that this isn’t a solution to anything and yet we rely on it more and more,” Cahn said.
“A poster is going to attract people into its issue because of its boldness and brightness,” said Carol Wells, Executive Director of CSPG and one of three curators of the exhibit. “People going to a lecture are most likely already interested in the issue. You have to choose to go to a lecture. A poster is put up in your public space. Like commercial advertising, a good poster can have the same power. Like good advertising says, ‘buy this product,’ a good poster can say ‘think about the world differently,’”
“Art has been central to every political movement” said Wells. “Art grabs their emotions; it’s at that same level that allows people to identify with something they might not have otherwise identified with.”
However, difficulty arises between making students aware of such issues and getting students involved working for causes. Which is where Books to Prisoners comes in. Books To Prisoners, a Seattle based organization with an off-shoot office here in Bellingham, is an organization that sends requested books to prisoners throughout the US. A representative from Books To Prisoners will be present at the Prison Nation reception on Nov. 30, taking book donations and recruiting volunteers.
Kyle Crawford, a junior and volunteer with BTP, explains the relationship between Prison Nation and Books To Prisoners:
“I see Prison Nation and Books to Prisoners as piggy backing off each other. Prison nation is going to draw in people for the art, or people that are more art centered, but then Books to Prisoners is going to be there as an extension of the messages of the art.”
Books to Prisoners functions as a means to educate self-motivated prisoners, to give them a chance at succeeding once being released from prison, Crawford says.
“I think a lot of the problems that lead people to prison are perpetuated year after year, and basically people that don’t have access to jobs don’t have access to education which leads to a deviant means of acquiring goods,” said Crawford. “Whether its stealing or selling drugs. But basically to counter that people have to be educated and people have to be able to put their time towards learning other ways to go about their lives.”
“At least with books to prisoners you can send some one a book and give them a, I hate the word glimpse, but at least a glance into a different way of living their lives.”
Crawford sees the Prison Nation event as important aspect of our student community because, “it gets people to start looking at the bigger issues, like look at how much money is going to prisons versus public healthcare, or education for kids, or even day-care for kids. I think it opens the door into looking at a lot of the aspects of how our society is run.”