Author Event: The Warehouse: A Visual Primer on Mass Incarceration

By Ben R. RSS Thu, May 30, 2024

Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate of any city in Pennsylvania, and the most locked-up census tracts in North Philadelphia have 17 times as many people behind bars as census tracts in Center City, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. This is one example of how data can help us visualize mass incarceration, which has been called the most pressing civil rights issue of our day. 

The Free Library will help Philadelphians visualize mass incarceration this summer in connection to a vital new book, The Warehouse: A Visual Primer on Mass Incarceration, by information artist Vic Liu and formerly incarcerated researcher and activist James Kilgore. Acclaimed author Michelle Alexander has called the book "a wonderfully attractive and accessible primer on the U.S. carceral state. . . [which] highlights the inspiring resistance that has emerged against this system of oppression and control."

From July 8 through October 4, nine massive banner illustrations will hang in the Art and Literature Departments at Parkway Central Library. These banners, created by Liu based on her illustrations from The Warehouse will strive to communicate the sheer scale of suffering without neglecting individual stories.

On July 23 at 6:00 p.m., the Social Science and History Department will host a discussion with Liu and Kilgore, moderated by John Pace, Senior Reentry Coordinator for Philadelphia's Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project. Registration is encouraged, but not required. 


Beyond The Warehouse, here are some books that can help you understand this vital civil rights issue:


The New Jim Crow (2012) by Michelle Alexander

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting Black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community — and all of us — to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

"Prisons Make Us Safer" and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration (2021) by Victoria Law

Using narrative, statistics, and history, this book identifies and dispels 21 popularly held myths about mass incarceration.

Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court (2020) by Matthew K. Clair

The number of Americans arrested, brought to court, and incarcerated has skyrocketed in recent decades. Criminal defendants come from all races and economic walks of life but experience punishment in vastly different ways. Privilege and Punishment examines how racial and class inequalities are embedded in the attorney-client relationship, providing a devastating portrait of inequality and injustice within and beyond the criminal courts.

Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health (2018)

Mass incarceration will end ― there is an emerging consensus that we’ve been locking up too many people for too long. But with more than 2.2 million Americans behind bars right now, how do we go about bringing people home? Decarcerating America collects some of the leading thinkers in the criminal justice reform movement to strategize how to cure America of its epidemic of mass punishment.

Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration (2020) by Christine Montross

Galvanized by her work in our nation's jails, psychiatrist Christine Montross illuminates the human cost of mass incarceration and mental illness. Dr. Christine Montross has spent her career treating the most severely ill psychiatric patients. Several years ago, she set out to investigate why so many of her patients got caught up in the legal system when discharged from her care — and what happened to them therein. Waiting for an Echo is a riveting, rarely-seen glimpse into American incarceration. It is also a damning account of policies that have criminalized mental illness, shifting large numbers of people who belong in therapeutic settings into punitive ones. The stark world of American prisons is shocking for all who enter it. But Dr. Montross's expertise — the mind in crisis — allowed her to reckon with the human stories behind bars: a father attempting to weigh the impossible calculus of a plea bargain; a bright young woman whose life is derailed by addiction; boys in a juvenile detention facility who, desperate for human connection, invent a way to communicate with one another from cell to cell; overextended doctors and correctional officers who strive to provide care and security in environments riddled with danger. In these encounters, Montross finds that while our system of correction routinely makes people with mental illness worse, just as routinely it renders mentally stable people psychiatrically unwell. The system is quite literally maddening. Our methods of incarceration take away not only freedom but also selfhood and soundness of mind. In a nation where 95 percent of all inmates are released from prison and return to our communities, this is a practice that punishes us all.


In addition, these books feature art created by those who are or have been incarcerated, or by artists responding to mass incarceration:


Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020) by Nicole R. Fleetwood

More than two million men and women are currently behind bars in the United States. Incarceration not only separates the imprisoned from their families and communities, it also exposes them to shocking levels of violence and sexual assault, subjecting them to the arbitrary cruelties of the criminal justice system. Yet, as Nicole Fleetwood reveals, America's prisons are filled with art. Despite the isolation and degradation they experience, the incarcerated are driven to assert their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanizes them. Based on interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, prison visits, and the author's own family experiences with the penal system, Marking Time shows how the imprisoned turn ordinary objects into elaborate works of art. Working with meager supplies and in the harshest conditions — including solitary confinement — these artists find ways to resist the brutality and depravity that prisons engender. The impact of their art, Fleetwood observes, can be felt far beyond prison walls. Their bold works, many of which are being published for the first time in this volume, have opened new possibilities in American art. As the movement to reform the country's criminal justice system grows, art gives the imprisoned a political voice. Their works testify to the economic and racial injustices that underpin American punishment and offer a new vision of freedom for the 21st century.

America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s (2010) by Lee Bernstein

This volume explores the forces that sparked a dramatic prison art renaissance, shedding light on how incarcerated people produced powerful writing, performance, and visual art.

Young, Gifted, and Black: A New Generation of Artists (2020)

Highlighting a new generation of Black artists, Young, Gifted, and Black surveys works drawn from the collection of Bernard I. Lumpkin and Carmine D. Boccuzzi, longtime champions of emerging artists of African descent. Edited by Antwaun Sargent, the book features over 100 artworks — including painting, photography, sculpture, and performance — that explore collective memory, struggle, and self-representation. With texts by curators and artists offering diverse perspectives, this book speaks broadly to notions of community and identity that, while rooted in the specific experience of Blackness, capture how these artists shape the ways we think about representation, race, and the history of art.

Prime: Art's Next Generation (2022)

This collection features the most exciting rising stars in contemporary art — who's who and what's next — featuring 107 artists born since 1980, as chosen by a new generation of art experts and leaders.

The Atmosphere of Crime (2020) by Gordon Parks

When Life magazine asked Gordon Parks to illustrate a recurring series of articles on crime in the United States in 1957, he had already been a staff photographer for nearly a decade. He embarked on a six-week journey that took him and a reporter to the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Unlike much of his prior work, the images made were in color. Parks rejected clichés of delinquency, drug use, and corruption, opting for a more nuanced view that reflected the social and economic factors tied to criminal behavior and a rare window into the working lives of those charged with preventing and prosecuting it. Transcending the romanticism of the gangster film, the suspense of the crime caper, and the racially biased depictions of criminality then prevalent in American popular culture, Parks coaxed his camera to do what it does best: record reality so vividly and compellingly that it would allow Life's readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations.

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