- Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States
What can we make of the fact that our government supports a burgeoning, already behemoth, system of punishment and that taxpayers underwrite the system, but that very few people in the United States know the facts or discuss the costs? What are the consequences for incarcerated persons and for society generally when the state takes unimpeded license to spend its treasure on isolating and degrading several million people because of their race and class—and the objections to this system are occasional, scattered, and obscured by indifferent media?
Prison abolitionists and other activists are increasingly dedicated to work in the interrelated arenas of prisoners’ rights and public education. Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States, a traveling exhibition funded by the Ford Foundation, is an example of one of many public education projects emerging now. The exhibition, which opened in 2006 inside the California Institution for Women (the first time in U.S. history that an outside art exhibition opened in a prison), focuses on raising public knowledge—and public outrage and activism—about the incarceration system in this country.
Since its amazing debut at the prison, the show has traveled to more than a dozen campus galleries, including the University of California Santa Cruz, Drake University, Hampshire College, University of Iowa, American University, Ohio State, the University of Louisville, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Interrupted Life is nearly completely booked for the next several years.
The show is made up of images and enough information to stimulate discussion, big questions, research, and activism. It consists of eight linked installation pieces, including a “prison corridor” made by astonishing teenage artists in Columbus, Ohio—some of whom had incarcerated family members. One of the images from the corridor piece is on the cover of this issue of the NWSA Journal. Recently released women in the Bay Area contributed a powerful set of images depicting what they found when they returned to the place from which they were arrested. There is a totem piece illuminating the growth of the prison industrial complex and nine pieces from The Real Cost of Prisons Project—comic book pages that transmit information like no other media. The centerpiece of Interrupted Life is made up of hundreds and hundreds of cards fashioned into panels, each card from an incarcerated woman doing time in one of thirty-seven women’s prisons around the country. The shadow-centerpiece is a set of cards that collect contemporary objections and activisms from all over. [End Page 25]
The exhibition also features a huge, cold, elegant, institutional “rulewall” enumerating the impossible, contradictory, deeply insulting rules governing children’s visits with their mothers. One artist accompanied a young girl visiting her incarcerated mother and made a breathtaking installation about the relationship between these two—a piece that imprints prison garb with pictures, diary entries, and letters between the eleven-year-old and her mother in prison. Finally a sound artist from New York made what he calls “sonic wallpaper,” which adds voices and environmental sound to the exhibition.
Wherever the show goes, faculty and community collaborate by developing symposia, lectures, films, panel discussions, and other ways of committing public education. Many who saw the show at the California Institution for Women said that it should be “seen by everyone.” The people who worked on making Interrupted Life are glad to be joining forces with others, inside and outside prison walls, who want to shine the brightest possible spotlight on these matters.
In 2009, the University of California Press will publish Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the U.S., an edited collection of work by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, allies, advocates, and academics. [End Page 26]
Rickie Solinger is a historian and curator. She is the author of books including Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (1992 Wade (2000); and Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America (2005). Solinger has curated 4 major exhibitions circling around the question, “Who is a legitimate mother in the U.S.?” These shows, including “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the...