Arts & Culture

Exhibition calls attention to dehumanizing aspect of solitary confinement

Speakers at ‘Solitary Confinement’ depict inhumane reality of prison practices

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Solitary Confinement,” the Nightingale Brown House Gallery’s latest exhibition on the ills of solitary confinement in the United States, closed to the public with a reception March 11.

The main feature of the exhibition, which opened Jan. 30, was a replica of a solitary cell. A bleak and restricted slab of concrete, the piece was a poignant depiction of the stark reality facing those in the throes of the dehumanizing measure of captivity. The replica was accompanied by similar testaments to the egregious mistreatment of the imprisoned. It featured multimedia representations that included sketches of special housing units, graphic novel-like panels testifying to poor facility conditions, letters from prisoners once victim to solitary confinement and audio recordings of those currently incarcerated in Rhode Island.

“It’s a way of shak(ing) people out of that daily routine way of being and put(ting) them into a headspace where they’re more attentive,” said Assistant Director of the Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage Marisa Brown, who, along with Matthew Branch, Thaddeus Gibson GS and Cherise Morris ’16 GS, was responsible for organizing the installation.

“The last couple of years we’ve been doing programs related to the issue of installation,” Brown said. She mentioned “Solitary Confinement” as the Center’s latest effort, following a University of Rhode Island gallery and a prison education conference attended by such schools as Cornell, Bard College, Princeton and Brown.

Shawn Hesse, head of the Boston branch of the architectural firm emersion DESIGN, and C. Morgan Grefe MA’00 PhD’05 executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, led the exhibition’s closing reception. Hesse addressed the obligation architects have to curbing social injustice, while Grefe spoke at length on the narratives of prisons turned into museums.

Hesse also serves on the board of directors of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Seeking to curtail the design of solitary confinement cells and comparable spaces, the group explores the dynamic role architects occupy in ethical building practices.

“As an industry, we have a responsibility to use our collective voice to speak out against systems that are unjust, including mass incarceration and capital punishment,” Hesse said, speaking on his — and not emersion DESIGN’s — behalf. “It’s a little disappointing and sad when we speak with activists surprised that architects care about human rights. We have to work to elevate the profession so that it’s no longer a surprise to people that we care.”

In this vein, Hesse helped curate the architectural half of the exhibit. He is also working with others toward an initiative the urges architects to comment on the current border crisis between the United States and Mexico.

“It’s important from an individual perspective to work within the industry, work with immigrants (and) raise the profiles of these issues industry-wide,” Hesse said. “One architect refusing to participate in the industry isn’t going to change anything.”   

Grefe approached the issue of solitary confinement from a more historical lens. She lectured on the history of solitary confinement and the efforts made by former prisons in documenting its usage.

She addressed the function of now-defunct penitentiaries in educating the public, referencing Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary as an exceptional example of a prison-turned-museum. Grefe mentioned how a quarter of prisons have already been converted into museums, stressing the necessity of curbing the development of additional “awful and inhumane institutions.”

“I’m troubled by the monetization of prisons fueled by an obligation to fill beds,” Grefe said. “It’s disturbing to me that there’s some board out there focused on thinking about ways of maximizing space in prisons.”