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Northern Michigan in Focus: States of Incarceration

When Michigan became a state in the 1830s, the first act by Governor Stevens T. Mason was to build Jackson prison, which became the largest walled prison in the world at one time.

Today there are 31 prisons across our state.

Corey Adkins shows you some of the history behind our prison system in this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

“The purpose of the exhibit is to make you think about what are the impacts and what are the causes of mass incarceration,” said Tobi Voight, community engagement director.

It’s a place no one wants to end up in but many do: prison. 

Now at the Michigan History Center in Lansing, there’s a national traveling exhibit called “States of Incarceration” where you can explore the history behind those walls.

“There have been a lot of passionate people in Michigan who have been thinking very deeply about what it means to punish and to lock people up, and what kinds of punishments are appropriate,” explained Suzanne Fischer, Michigan History Center museum director.

There’s infamous stories about people from Michigan who’ve been locked up, like the activist John Sinclair from the Detroit area who did time in the 60s.  Then from the Marquette area, Michigan’s last stage coach robber Reimund Holzhey, he shot and killed a man during that robbery. You learn the stories behind these men and why they did what they did and more.

“One of the most profound exhibits is the timeline and how it developed America and it is a graph. So you’ll just see how quickly incarceration has developed over the years,” said Tobi.

The exhibit that may hit you the hardest is the wall where you’re asked some questions like “I’ve broken the law and not been caught” and you can write and answer. Some are humorous like, I steal memes from other meme pages for views and likes without giving credit.”

Or the question “I fear arrest or incarceration, I fear crime.”

Someone wrote, “Scared of getting blamed for something I didn’t do and not having money for bond or a lawyer and have to do jail time because of my color!”

Then there’s people who have done time and seemed to have learned.

They wrote, “The year I did in jail shaped my life. I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be. Now I’m free and doing alright.”

“So many people have been touched by these stories, so to hear people speaking about that in their own voices is really powerful and I really feel honored to be making a place for those kinds of storytelling, sharing and discussing,” explained Suzanne.

All in all, we didn’t scratch the surface of what you can learn from this exhibit at the Michigan History Center in Lansing. “States of Incarceration” will be on display until May 19.

“This is a deep issue that brings up emotion.  It’s an emotional issue and I think that is a good reason to go to a museum exhibit, and if not learn a little more to feel a little more,” said Suzanne.