PORTLAND — The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to a study by Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy agency focused on criminal justice reform.
Maine, which the same study shows has one of the lowest in the nation, has an incarceration rate more than twice that of many other democratic nations, such as Canada.
“Freedom & Captivity: A Humanities Initiative for an Abolitionist Future,” a statewide public project this fall, wonders what Maine would look like if prisons were abolished.
“The main drivers of incarceration are poverty, drug use, and lack of housing,” said Freedom & Captivity coordinator Catherine Besteman, an anthropology professor at Colby College. “What would it look like to live without those things? If addiction was treated as a public health emergency, not a crime? If housing were affordable?”
She and her 18-member volunteer advisory board enlisted more than 50 institutional partners, from state agencies to museums to social justice organizations, to create programs including a podcast, webinars, film screenings, and art exhibitions. Much of the content is available online at www.freedomandcaptivity.org.
The exhibitions range from the searingly personal to investigations of the top-down systems that propel incarceration rates. Freedom & Captivity’s online “Art on Abolition” exhibition follows an arc from incarceration’s racist history to a hopeful picture of emancipation.
The First Amendment Museum in Augusta’s “First Freedoms in Captivity” show, which is viewable online, spotlights art by imprisoned veterans illustrating the First Amendment’s five freedoms. An anonymous artist at Maine State Prison crafted “Freedom Within,” a bird in a red, white, and blue cage, from paper, string, and gum wrappers — a picture of freedom curtailed by the state.
Personal liberties versus the public good — the conflict that fuels the national fire about vaccines — is the same one that drives the debate about incarceration.
“Politicians compete about who can guarantee public safety by incarcerating people,” Besteman said, “Controlling Black and brown bodies for securing white neighborhoods led to the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, and the classification of children as super-predators.”
Two Portland exhibitions approach incarceration with breathtaking scope, examining its systemic underpinnings and its broader implications.
“Begin Again: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society (also available online) urgently frames Maine’s history, and that of the United States, as built on a foundation of white supremacy. While the show doesn’t directly address incarceration, the power dynamic is crystal clear.
MHS curator Tilly Laskey, working with a team including independent historian Anne B. Gass, Darren J. Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine, and attorney Krystal Williams, boldly hangs a red curtain down the middle of the gallery, separating stories of the oppressors from those of the oppressed.
The show kicks off with papal bulls issued in 1452 and 1493, here jointly called “Doctrine of Discovery and Domination.” Declaring that all land not inhabited by Christians could be “discovered” by Christian Europeans, they are the bedrock of colonialism.
“Begin Again” is unflinching. There’s a human neck shackle Maine troops sawed off an escaped enslaved man during the Civil War. Captain Charles C.G. Thornton of the 12th Maine volunteers brought it home and donated it to the historical society with a note: “The collar originally had three iron prongs reaching to the top of the man’s head and was fastened by the chain to a shackle around his ankle, carrying a ten-pound ball.”
Maine settlers took Wabanaki land as their own. The Watertown Treaty, on view here, was signed shortly after the Declaration of Independence, creating an alliance between the United States and the Wabanaki Nations — one of many agreements with tribal nations the federal government never lived up to.
“Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic,” a contemporary art exhibition at Maine College of Art & Design’s Institute of Contemporary Art, examines how surveillance — a means of control in prisons, a tactic used against groups perceived as “other,” and now a feature built into social media — impacts us today. It was organized by Julie Poitras Santos, director of exhibitions at Maine College of Art & Design’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Photographer Christopher Gregory-Rivera’s “Las Carpetas” portrays the archives of a decades-long surveillance project of members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement conducted by the FBI and the Puerto Rican police, hitting its height in the 1960s.
Ann Messner, in a broadside, delineates the history of American free libraries with stories of censorship, segregation, and the FBI’s Library Awareness Program, which tracked what Americans were reading in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Medusa,” Yazan Khalili’s chilling video installation, makes the mythical Gorgon a metaphor for technology. In the video, Khalili uses facial recognition software on a museum’s Medusa head. He repeatedly interrupts the viewer’s immersion in his videos, shattering the monitors’ screens and covering them with paper, as if protecting us from turning to stone.
“Monitor” elucidates how far the tentacles of surveillance reach: The more we enable technology to monitor us, the more we are prisoners of our own devices. Such imprisonment is like water, and we are the fish.
Incarceration is much more immediately painful, and that pain ripples outward.
As Besteman organized Freedom & Captivity, she said, “it seemed like everywhere I went, there was an incarcerated dad or brother. I couldn’t believe the number of people with incarcerated loved ones whom I’d known for years, and never known that.”
In “Home Fires,” at the University of New England Art Gallery, gallery and exhibitions director Hilary Irons explores the experience of families of people in prison.
The show pointedly opens the lens on captivity to the Holocaust, and innocent people tortured and murdered by an authoritarian regime — people whose families still grieve. Judy Glickman Lauder’s “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? View of Birkenau Extermination Camp, Poland,” a negative gelatin silver print, turns sun rays black over the death camp.
Photographer Julie K. Gray captures the ache of family separation in “Self-Portrait as a Ghost: Mid-Orange Correctional Facility No. 2,” in which a ghost haunts the hallway of an abandoned prison. Painter Mai Snow was born in a Russian prison, sent to an orphanage, and adopted by Americans. Their paintings, like many works in this show, don’t directly address their story, but instead open pathways of association for viewers.
Snow’s “Bathtub” looks down on a submerged person. It’s a picture of isolation, a watery fog of disconnection.
“Begin Again” and “Monitor” lay out the big picture around freedom and captivity. “Home Fires” makes incarceration personal.
And maybe home is where the solution begins. In Freedom & Captivity’s podcast episode, “Love is What the Transformation’s Got to Be: On Accountability and Punishment,” Joseph Jackson, executive director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and director of leadership development for Maine Inside Out, a social justice program run by formerly incarcerated people, suggested the answer is not the top-down one we have now.
Jackson proposes the solution in terms of restorative justice, which aims to repair harm caused by crime and restore community relationships.
“How does a community do that?” he asked, “because right now, a lot of these things have been taken out of the hands of the community.”
FREEDOM & CAPTIVITY: A Humanities Initiative for an Abolitionist Future
MONITOR: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic
At Institute of Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art & Design, 522 Congress St., Portland, through Dec. 10. www.meca.edu/about/institute-of-contemporary-art/currently-on-view/
BEGIN AGAIN: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine
At Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland, through Dec. 31. www.mainehistory.org/museum_overview.shtml
At University of New England Art Gallery, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland, through Jan. 23. www.une.edu/news/2021/home-fires-opens-oct-22-une-art-gallery-portland
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.