Designing the exhibit component on Rikers Island is crashing to an end, full speed. There are many, many details to be attended to before the opening of the exhibition States of Incarceration on April 1, 2016. What slowed us down in finalizing details is what also has been the most profound part of the project: our conversations with men from the Fortune Society.
The Fortune Society is a reentry program for people getting out of prison. They service over 5000 different people each year, coming from any jail or prison in the country. Many people just walk in, having heard about the organization while behind bars. They need a meal, a place to stay, a job. In addition to providing these necessary services, the organization also conducts advocacy and proposes policy reforms about incarceration.
Finding the right partner to collaborate in this class took some work. We couldn’t figure out the right fit with another great organization working with youth at risk. Age mattered. As the first organization reminded us, court-involved youth are not looking to be associated further with jail. Older folks, those who had survived the system, often years and years on the inside, want to be heard. And they have much to tell.
Students met with the same six men from Fortune, who had been in Rikers (and other prisons) over the last fifty years, for three times throughout the semester. In our first session, we showed them maps of Rikers, aerial shots, pictures of buildings with official names. They looked at them in wonder, unable to place their intimate experience inside with an outside perspective. As they told us, nobody goes outside on Rikers. Workers are bussed from one building to another; people being held there stay in one self-contained building, meals, healthcare all in each place. (This was a change from earlier decades where there was a common mess hall for people being held in various buildings.) The only time they see the outside is the brief walk from building to bus in the dark of early morning or night, ferrying to and from court. And “Otis Bantum Correction Center” (one of the jail buildings on the island)?! They only knew that there were in “C-73,” “C-76.”
From this conversation came an attention to visibility, our primary theme. Students began to think about how the island is hypervisible to some, invisible to others. Even those who are confined there see only one or two parts of the massive 10-jail complex. Seeing Rikers became a metaphor for how incarceration permeates all aspects of the city. So, in session two, students presented the Fortune folks with this theme and images compiled for possible use in the exhibit. The men’s comments and stories that came out in these interactions prompted students to want to interview each person and find a way to use their words and thoughts in the exhibit as well. The third session, then, was devoted to individual interviews, taped for use in the exhibit, possibly courses in the spring, and deposited in the HAL archive.
The interviews were the highlight of the semester. I think they were also substantially different because they were conducted at the end of the semester, after learning and interacting for weeks. They feel intimate, poignant, even though the men had been unfailingly generous in telling us about their experiences throughout the semester. And, even more important than the audio file, the students felt honored to be these men’s interlocuters and listeners. And the men said they were heard.
The session in which students conducted interviews was supposed to be the final consultation over the images and text of exhibit. Instead, the interviews prompted more deliberation about how to incorporate these voices, ideas, experiences. So, we’re rushing to get high-resolution copies of photographs, finalize captions, determine what will go where in the gallery. But we’ll hear these men speak far beyond the time of the exhibition.