At Eastern State, Massive Sculpture Points to Exploding U.S. Incarceration Rate

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Emma Lee/WHYY
    Sean Kelley, Director of Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary, introduces the 16-foot tall sculpture that illustrates changes in the U.S. prison population and compares it to the rest of the world.

    A 3-D infographic illustrating the rise in American incarceration rates now stands at Philadelphia's historic Eastern State Penitentiary, towering 16 feet high and weighing in at 3,500 pounds.

    The new permanent installation at Philadelphia's historic Eastern State Penitentiary is a huge bar graph made of steel columns that illustrate the rise in American incarceration rates.

    It is part of the former prison's bid to become the unofficial national prison museum.

    Towering 16 feet high and weighing 3,500 pounds, the 3-D infographic made of steel and concrete in the penitentiary's exercise yard is hard to miss. It's also hard to misinterpret: the bar graph tracks the American incarceration rate over the 20th century, which has risen exponentially since 1990. Today, the percentage of imprisoned Americans population is three times what it was 40 years ago.

    Another side of the sculpture shows incarceration rates among world nations (guess which is highest) and another side shows a breakdown of prison racial demographics (guess which is highest).

    "We are very confident -- we can say this as an organization -- that this is not a change in behavior," said Sean Kelley, Eastern State's vice president. "Americans are not more violent, they do not commit more crimes than they did -- in a significant way -- 40 years ago. Our laws have changed, and our policing and prosecution have changed. We are much more committed as a country to send people to prison as a response to crime than we were 40 years ago." 

    In 1967, John Toth was imprisoned in Eastern State Penitentiary for life for crimes related to bank robbery. When the penitentiary shut down in 1970, he bounced through prisons around the country for the next two decades, released on parole in early 1990s.

    During that time he saw the prison population change from hardened criminals to primarily those convicted of summary offenses and lesser crimes.

    "When I was here, the people who were here were criminals. There wasn't a person here for domestic violence or selling drugs on the corner," said Toth, standing by the steel graph. "There were people who were rapists, murderers, robbers -- serious. Not like they have today. That's why you get that spike up there."

    The steel sculpture, "The Big Graph," is part of Eastern State Penitentiary's ambition to become the ersatz national prison museum. A gigantic talking point, it shows the effects of criminal justice policies set forth by Presidents Johnson (precipitating the "War on Crime"), then Reagan (the "War on Drugs"), then Clinton ("Three Strikes").

    "Not all our visitors want to have these conversations, and that is completely fine with us," said Kelley. "We'll still tell the stories of Al Capone's incarceration and the stories of escapes. But we also are thinking this is the place for people who want to see the huge changes in the U.S. criminal justice system. This is the place to have those conversations. So -- yes -- we are definitely throwing our hat in the ring as the national prison museum."

    The "Big Graph" cost $70,000 to manufacture and install. Most of that was paid for with revenue from Eastern State's annual haunted house attraction, "Terror Behind the Walls."