Arts & Entertainment

Traveling public art exhibit takes aim at mass incarceration in US

By Alvaro Blanco

Miami, Jun 17 (EFE).- “5 percent of the world’s population. 25 percent of the world’s prisoners”

Those statistics appear on one of the 30 signs that make up a traveling public art exhibition now on display in this South Florida city, a project that aims to raise public awareness about mass incarceration in the United States and demand judicial reform.

On another sign in Spanish, the Guerrilla Girls art collective asserts that racism is at the heart of the problem, stating that African-American Floridians are “jailed at a rate four times greater” than other inhabitants of that southeastern US state.

Organized by the non-profit organizations SaveArtSpace and Art at a Time Like This, that project shines a spotlight on a reality that has grown massively over the past five decades.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the US prison population has expanded by 500 percent since 1970 and that nearly 2 million people are currently behind bars.

The touring exhibition has begun in Miami, the biggest city in a state whose incarceration rate of 795 per 100,000 people is significantly higher than the national average of 664 per 100,000, according to the Prison Policy non-profit organization.

That group says on its website, however, that “every single US state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth.”

One of the renowned artists involved in the project, Faylita Hicks, said she was jailed for writing a bad check in the amount of $25, adding that she spent 45 days behind bars because she was unable to post bail while awaiting trial.

Her sign shows a blind-folded young African-American man, an image intended to denounce a justice system that she says is theoretically blind (fair and unbiased) but is not so in practice.

Next to the image is a message alluding to the 1776 US Declaration of Independence that reads: “We Hold These Truths to be Evidence – All are Created Equal, Are Endowed with Rights. Among These, Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The project is titled “8×5,” a reference to the average size of a US prison cell – eight feet by five feet (2.4 meters by 1.5 m).

Anne Verhallen, curator of the project and co-founder of Art at A Time Like This, told Efe it is important to raise awareness among ordinary citizens about the magnitude of the problem.

To that end, organizers purchased ad space at 15 bus stops and an equal number of billboards located on busy streets in Miami to convey their messages and push for dialogue and potential solutions.

A sign by Shepard Fairey, who designed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” poster in 2008, not only notes that America’s prison population is a quarter of the total for the entire planet but also points out that 70 million Americans – out of a population of 330 million – have a criminal record.

In his sign, multimedia artist Sam Durant states that “90 percent of defendants must take a plea bargain or risk waiting years in jail for a trial date.”

Like Fairey and Durant, artist Sherill Roland also cited statistics for his sign.

“Interesting Fact: Florida has a conviction rate above 90 percent. Florida’s prison population: over 170,000 people. Margin of error is 10 percent. Roughly 17,000 individuals sit in prison by mistake. Those wrongfully incarcerated persons could fill the DRIVE PINK Stadium,” a soccer-specific facility in the nearby city of Ft. Lauderdale.

After attempting to trigger debate in Miami about the US penal justice system, the art exhibit will next arrive in New York City, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington DC.

The idea both in South Florida and the other stops of the traveling exhibition is to situate the signs near courthouses and government buildings, places where decisions are made that affect the size of the country’s prison population.

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