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Michigan History Center to host traveling exhibition on the history and future of mass incarceration

Posted at 8:12 AM, Aug 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-31 08:12:33-04

This fall, States of Incarceration, the first national traveling multimedia exhibition to explore the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States, will be displayed at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing. The exhibit runs Sept. 8, 2018, through May 19, 2019. 

States of Incarceration was created by over 700 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities. They grew up in a United States that incarcerates more of its people, including immigrants, than any country in the world – and at any point in its history. Recently, they have witnessed a new bipartisan consensus that the criminal justice system is broken and the intense conflict over how to fix it.

In 2015, they came together to ask: How did this happen? What new questions does the past challenge us to ask about what is happening now? To find answers, they examined their own communities’ histories. Through courses at 30 universities, local teams shared stories, searched archives and visited correctional facilities. Each team created one piece of the exhibition, which launched in New York City in April 2016.

Three men, the Jackson prison jazz band, pose with a banjo, upright bass, and a guitar

The project’s run at the Michigan History Museum is a collaborative partnership between the museum and Michigan State University. In the fall 2018 semester, history professor Dr. LaShawn Harris and her students will explore cultural and leisure activities at Jackson prison. They will contribute a piece to the exhibition, which will be installed in early 2019. 

Michigan History Museum staff also supplemented the exhibition with information and artifacts about the history of incarceration in Michigan. Highlights include the story of the last stagecoach robber in Michigan, the history of youth incarceration, and Michigan prison labor.

“We’ve seen so much in the news about mass incarceration, that we thought it was important to put today’s prison stories into historical context," said Museum Director Suzanne Fischer. "Michigan was the first state to ban capital punishment, but also at one point had the largest walled prison in the world. This exhibition is a great opportunity to think through some of these questions and contradictions.”

Head shot of Dr. Heather Ann Thompson

The exhibition opens to the public Saturday, Sept. 8 with special free admission, light refreshments beginning at 11 a.m. and a talk by Dr. Heather Ann Thompson at 1 p.m. Dr. Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan and is the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Thompson writes extensively on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. She has served the boards of several policy organizations as well as an advisor on the States of Incarceration project. During her talk, which is free and open to the public, Thompson will talk about her book, Blood in the Water, as well as the history of mass incarceration in the United States. 

Additional public programs scheduled during the exhibition’s run will include film screenings, panel discussions and presentations that explore the history of incarceration in Michigan and the United States, as well as current bipartisan efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Programs are supported by the Michigan Humanities Council.

Mug shot of Raymond Holzhey, the last stagecoach robber in Michigan, includes side and front images.

Starting Sunday, Sept. 9, admission to the exhibition is free with regular museum admission. The exhibition runs through May 19, 2019. The Michigan History Museum is open seven days a week. For museum hours and information on the exhibition and its programs, visit the museum’s website at

States of Incarceration is a project of the Humanities Action Lab, a collaboration of more than 30 colleges and universities, led by Rutgers University-Newark. Humanities Action Lab works with issue-based organizations and public spaces to foster new public dialogue on contested social issues, through public humanities projects that explore the diverse local histories and current realities of shared global concerns. The project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Humanities, Whiting Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Information about States of Incarceration project can be found at