Prison sentencing, it’s not a topic often discussed, but it’s one under the microscope at Central Michigan University.
The United States is known for having the highest prison rate in the world and some CMU students have decided to get to the bottom of why that is.
The college students spent three semesters researching and designing an exhibit that starts a conversation about the prison industrial complex and life behind bars.
Standing in the new exhibit, graphic design student, Austin Wirgau reads a poem to us, “What would I like the world to know about me? Never have I heard such a loaded question. I would like them to know I’m not just a number. I’m not property.”
Those are the words of a man sentenced to life in prison, just a few of many that recently inspired CMU students to create In The System, Reflections On The Prison Industrial Complex.
Wirgau describes the exhibit, “We approached it about solitary confinement, by actually talking to prisoners and giving them a way to speak. By looking at the architecture of prison, by actually taking different polls and getting our own statistics.”
All of that research and art was put together in CMU’s graphic design capstone class, Wirgau says all featuring different aspects of a prisoner’s life; “You’ll see these portraits open up in the rest of the room, we have some walls and we have our solitary cell, kind of a sign of solidarity against the system.”
That mock cell is 10 by 8 feet, an exact replica of a solitary confinement cell in prison.
Students take turns sitting in the cell throughout the day as a camera records them.
Walking into the museum you can see them live on a screen.
They hope to use this visual as a way to communicate the injustice of locking up a human alone for 21 out of 24 hours a day.
“People are profiting off building these places, like it’s a prison industrial complex like the military industrial complex where you have people profiting off the suffering of other people,” explains Wirgau.
What students found?
The biggest leap in sentencing came during the war on drugs, beginning in the 1970’s.
They got to wondering just how many prisons there were in the United States to house them all.
Wirgau tells us, “We have a large I think 18 foot map of the United States that we had printed and it has every single prison that we could find.”
Students say their eyes have been opened.
Who are these people, how are the numbers growing so fast, and what are we doing to help?
The answer is far from black and white.
Wirgau leaves us with one final sentiment from the poem of that same inmate, “ I am more than man, more than human, more than a conversation. I am a brother, a son, a loving member of life. I am more than just a number.”
The exhibit will be open until April 15th at Central Michigan University’s art gallery.