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Transforming walls into bridges: art, empathy and mass incarceration in the United States

Naomi Toth
Traduction de Yarri Kamara
Cet article est une traduction de :
Transformer les murs en ponts : art, empathie et incarcération de masse aux États-Unis [fr]


In the wake of Black Lives Matter, artworks exploring the experience of incarceration have burst onto the American contemporary art scene. Many break away from the iconography of the judicial institution and contrast with the archetypical figures of the “hardened criminal” and the “victim-object” which circulate in the media and in cultural imaginaries. They thereby create new pathways for empathy between non-incarcerated viewers and the incarcerated. This article identifies seven aesthetic strategies employed to this end, drawing on works by Sara Bennett, Russell Craig, Jared Owens, Marcus Manganni, Jesse Krimes and Sable Elyse Smith which seek to create the conditions for non-hierarchical identification between non-incarcerated audiences and the incarcerated.

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  • 1 The exhibitions: “111... and other stories” by Jared Owens, Malin Gallery; “Tithe” by Sable Elyse S (...)
  • 2 A piece by the abolitionist artist jackie sumell and a series of images from the neighborhoods most (...)

1Art addressing the experience of incarceration has burst onto the American contemporary art scene over the last few years. To take the city of New York alone: The Writing on the Wall by artist Hank Willis Thomas and activist Baz Dreisinger, a monumental mural composed of texts penned by incarcerated persons, was exhibited on Manhattan’s High Line in 2020. That same year, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s PS1 site in Queens presented academic and curator Nicole Fleetwood’s landmark exhibition, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which brought together art by the currently or formerly incarcerated, along with works by artists affected by or working on the theme of incarceration. In 2022, Sable Elyse Smith’s sculptures and text-based installations engaging with the carceral system were presented at the Whitney Biennale of American Art and in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In the month of September 2022 alone, no less than five exhibitions around carceral themes were held in private or community galleries1 across the city, and the MoMA presented two new works on the topic.2

  • 3 Notable curators include Risa Puleo, curator of “Walls Turned Sideways” at the Contemporary Arts Mu (...)
  • 4 By comparison, America's incarceration rate is six times higher than that of France (Fair & Walmsle (...)
  • 5 This has been correlated with a significant increase in the population of immigrant detention cente (...)

2The newfound exposure of such works owes much to the long term efforts of artists, visionary curators, and some key patrons.3 But their sudden visibility in well-established institutional spaces is above all linked to the American public’s feeling of urgency about the need to rethink the role played by prisons in their society. In a country where the prison population is currently over two million,4 the phenomenon of mass incarceration is now attracting attention well beyond activist circles. Broader public awareness of the issue has emerged at a time when the effects of the 2008 financial crisis have forced policymakers to reassess budgetary allocations for prisons, and a bipartisan consensus seems to have emerged in favour of reducing the carceral population.5 More importantly, Black Lives Matter has done much to put the issue under the spotlight. Since 2013, this powerful social movement has denounced not only police violence but the functioning of the judicial system as a whole, notably its role in maintaining a poor, black “racial caste,” to quote the academic and lawyer Michelle Alexander (2010, p. 2).

  • 6 “Relational art” is used here in the broadest sense of the term: the artists Fleetwood discusses in (...)

3The artists examined here—Sara Bennett, Russell Craig, Jared Owens, Marcus Manganni, Jesse Krimes, and Sable Elyse Smith—are more or less close to or distant from Black Lives Matter and other activist groups advocating for the reduction of police budgets or prison abolition. Though their individual political commitments vary, these artists’ works all challenge the conventional representations of incarcerated people disseminated by official visual culture. They thereby “creat[e] relational possibilities that disrupt the mandate of prison,” making them part of what Nicole Fleetwood (2020a) calls “carceral aesthetics” (p. 25): artworks that are shaped by the conditions of visual production within the carceral state, while simultaneously contesting its logical underpinnings. Fleetwood emphasises the centrality of “relational art practices” to carceral aesthetics (p. 25),6 as such works create affective bonds across and in spite of prison walls.

4Yet such bonds come up against deep-seated cultural imaginaries. Representations of incarcerated people in the media and the arts are often polarised between two archetypical figures: on the one hand, the “hardened criminal,” the embodiment of terrifying evil from whom society must be protected; on the other, the dehumanised “victim” crushed by the penitentiary system, reduced to being little more than the object of state violence. Both of these figures act as screens which obfuscate the experience of incarceration as it is actually lived out by millions of people, and, in different ways, each plays on fascination with power and violence. They thus impede the creation of genuine empathy between the incarcerated and non-incarcerated, as they block identification, setting up psychological walls which reduce the possibility for each person to imagine themselves in the other’s situation, to feel what the other feels.

5In proposing alternative representations of incarcerated people, the artworks studied below all attempt to turn such walls sideways and make them into bridges, to paraphrase Angela Davis (1974, p. 347), thereby creating pathways for empathy between the inside and the outside. Such a transformation plays a key role in creating a broader activist base capable of effectively contesting mass incarceration and the inequalities and suffering it generates. To fully appreciate the way these works enable such forms of relationality, the emotional mainsprings of the figures of the “hardened criminal” and the “victim-object” must first be examined.

The “hardened criminal” or the “victim-object”

  • 7 This use of the word “criminal” to designate the most violent offences is also common in academia. (...)

6The term “criminal” is used indiscriminately to qualify people incarcerated for crimes ranging from simple theft to premeditated murder. Tarring everyone with the same brush, this naming practice means that the stigma and fantasies associated with the most horrible crimes taint all those thus designated, all the more so given the disproportionate space accorded to violent crime in the media. A 2018 study of American television crime series observed that 60% of crimes featured were murders, though property crimes were seven times more frequent than violent crimes, of which murders make up just 1.4% (The Color of Change, 2020, p. 118). This is not a recent phenomenon: a survey of radio programmes dealing with crime between 1929 and 1962 showed that such programmes focused almost exclusively on murder cases, when murder accounted for just 0.5% of offences committed during that period (Cheatwood, cited in Birkbeck 2014).7

7Indeed, the vast majority of prison sentences in the United States are not handed down for violent crimes. The steep rise in the prison population owes more to “the war on drugs” launched by the Reagan administration and intensified under Clinton. This policy imposed harsh sentences for the sole possession of certain drugs, legislation which had a notable effect on black communities: sentences for possession of crack, a drug associated with black neighbourhoods, are much higher than those for possession of cocaine, more often consumed in white neighbourhoods (Alexander, 2020, p. 141). It also led to the militarisation of the police as well as engendering draconian laws like “three strikes and you are out,” in which a third conviction leads to a life sentence for certain infractions, and “truth in sentencing,” which imposes incompressible sentences for certain offences (Alexander, 2020; Cecil, 2015, p. 4).

  • 8 See the Crime Data Explorer on the FBI website.
  • 9 The term was popularised by John DiIulio Jr in an article in The Weekly Standard, “The coming of th (...)
  • 10 See Jamie Fader (2016).

8In spite of a significant drop in violent crime since 1993, the image of the violent criminal remains powerful.8 It was reinforced in the 1990s with the invention of the term “superpredator” to designate young, ruthless and unreformable criminals, from whom society must be protected.9 The term gained currency beyond criminologist circles, seeping into media discourse and general public use, and was generally used to refer to racialised subjects.10 Though now discredited, the superpredator fantasy was encouraged in the cultural sphere, sometimes paradoxically, by films such as Menace II Society (1993), with its explicitly threatening title.

  • 11 See Georges Didi-Huberman (2012, p. 37-79) who analyses the role played by the photographers Hubert (...)
  • 12 With the exception of some jurisdictions (San Francisco Police Department, 2020; Fleetwood, 2020b), (...)
  • 13 Exhibited on the walls of the New York State Pavilion, this work was comprised of 13 very large for (...)

9Official prison visual culture also reinforces the generalisation of the image of the “hardened criminal” to all incarcerated people. The most obvious example is the mugshot, taken at the time of arrest, with its standardized format comprising frontal and profile shots. Mugshots tend to emphasize common traits each subject shares with others presented in the same format, thereby differentiating all those depicted in this manner from the rest of the population. This photographic practice, invented in the nineteenth century as an instrument of phrenology, the visual “science” of “criminals,”11 thereby encourages the generalisation of the image of the terrifying criminal to all those who are incarcerated, particularly when mugshots are then relayed by the media12 or in artworks—such as in Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men (1964).13

  • 14 On stigmatisation as the creation of a separate category, produced by the exercise of power and end (...)
  • 15 See Michelle Alexander (2020) and Valas & Dietrich (2014).

10Labelled linguistically and visually as “criminals,” the incarcerated find themselves placed in a distinct category, becoming the “other” not only in the eyes of the general population, but also those of their loved ones and, often, even in their own. The shame associated with doing time in prison helps explain the silence which has long surrounded the problem of mass incarceration, even within the communities most affected by it (Alexander, 2020, p. 175-220, 245-249). This stigmatisation14 continues after release, in the form of legal discrimination that formerly incarcerated people face in many states. They may be barred from voting and jury duty, made ineligible for social housing and food aid schemes, or prohibited from exercising a significant number of professions, often for life. The effects of imprisonment therefore persist long after the end of a prison term. Between a fifth and a third of American adults have a criminal record,15 and this demographic, for the most part, is poor.

11The social and moral stigmatisation of the incarcerated deepens the contrast with the non-incarcerated, heightening the feeling of moral purity amongst the non-incarcerated and reinforcing their self-image as “innocent” people. The sociologist Michelle Brown (2009, 2013) has analysed this as an effect of penal spectatorship, that is the practice of looking at penal practices and their representations in the media and American visual culture from the position of an external spectator. The distance that separates the viewer from the incarcerated person is not reduced by this practice, rather it is increased, especially as penal spectators are most often white, while incarcerated people most often come from racialised communities (2013). This racial-carceral differentiation offers affective benefits to spectators, while also reinforcing their blindness to their own social and moral shortcomings, and to the violence exerted by the carceral system itself.

12When it does not simply prevent identification with the incarcerated, the figure of the “hardened criminal” can, however, also exercise a kind of attraction. For a criminal may also be admired for exercising agency, for becoming the author of his or her own life. Such celebration may reflect a psychological need to establish a positive self-image on the part of those who come from stigmatised neighbourhoods. This is how Michelle Alexander (2020) analyses the success of gangsta rap and its relationship to crime, which ranges from raw description without glorification to unabashed celebration (p. 215-218). Attraction to those who have broken the law may also be founded on a critical analysis of the judicial system: in so far as the administration of the law upholds and reinforces structural inequalities within American society, as shown by racial statistics of the prison population, one can question the justice of this judicial system and may even understand certain offences as political acts challenging the law in the name of an alternative conception of justice.

  • 16 On this topic, see Charlotte Lacoste’s Séductions du bourreau, négation des victimes [Seductive per (...)

13Yet it is difficult to characterise the offences for which the vast majority of the American carceral population have been sentenced as explicitly political. It follows that the attraction that a non-incarcerated person may feel for someone who has been romanticised as a “hardened criminal” springs from other sources. This attraction often relies upon a hierarchical imbalance which places the “criminal” in a position of superiority,16 because he or she has dared to transgress constricting morals, laws and social practices. This act of transgression sets the “criminal” apart, excepting him or her from the standard moral order. Furthermore, the “criminal” is admired for his or her greater strength, thereby commanding respect.

  • 17 This tradition is stronger in Europe. See, for example, Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (195 (...)
  • 18 See Benoît Tadié (2018) on the contradictions that animate representations of transgression in Amer (...)

14In the American cultural imaginary, the claim of being above the law has a long history. Affirming the power of the individual over the collective, it goes hand-in-hand with a fascination for power. Lone vigilantes, celebrated notably in Western films, believe they represent justice when faced with what they consider to be a flawed judicial system. Mafia films also play on a critique of the law and solicit viewers’ admiration for those who free themselves from its constraints. Transgressing the law also grants its agent an exceptional status, albeit in different ways, in aesthetic traditions which celebrates evil17 as well as in crime paperbacks or television series.18 Yet in all these cases, elevating the “criminal” to this level of superiority often also encourages an equal measure of fascination for the repressive power of the state, called upon to restore order in an outburst of violence.

15The figure of the “victim-object” can also engender ambivalent affective reactions, eliciting sympathy for the target of state violence while also acting as a repellent to identification, as the prisoner, reduced to an extreme state of passivity, becomes nothing more than a number and can no longer be object of empathy. This is one of the reasons why the term “victim” is often rejected by associations of victims who prefer more positive formulations. And when the status of victimhood elicits identification, such identification is not always founded on the recognition of a shared humanity, but may arise from one of two kinds of hierarchically imbalanced relationship structures.

16In some cases, the “victim-object” figure may be used to sublimate prisoners, the “perfect” victim being innocent. Without minimising the real problem of judicial errors, viewing the incarcerated solely through the prism of the innocent victim is problematic. Beyond the denial that such a position often relies upon, it excludes the majority of those incarcerated: those who are guilty of the infractions they have been convicted for.

17In other cases, the victim may become the object of condescending compassionate pity. Such pity is frequently at play in rehabilitative approaches to the incarcerated, in which support is provided with the aim of transforming them into citizens capable of respecting the law. Rehabilitation is thus undertaken in the name of a salvatory project, while imposing a social norm to be respected. Real empathy, however, is absent, because the aim is to transform the incarcerated so that they might resemble the non-incarcerated.

18Therefore, when the archetypical figures of the “hardened criminal” and the “victim” do not simply block any form of empathy, identification with incarcerated people romanticised as “hardened criminals” or belittled as “victims” is very often based on an imbalance between the subject and the object of identification. Whether they elevate or diminish the status of the incarcerated vis-à-vis the non-incarcerated, the emotional mechanisms at play in this identification cloud the ethical and political issues surrounding the law and its administration and reinforce the logical frameworks of the existing carceral state, all the while masking the very real conditions of American prisons and the broad diversity of those incarcerated there.

19Sara Bennett, Russell Craig, Jesse Krimes, Marcus Manganni, Jared Owens and Sable Elyse Smith all make a clear break from these archetypical figures in their artwork engaging with the carceral experience. A more complex and more human representation of the incarcerated emerges from their work, one which allows for forms of identification that do not depend on hierarchical imbalances, thereby constituting a first step towards the construction of a critique of mass incarceration. The artworks analysed below are emblematic of different empathy-enabling strategies. Some artists and curators seek to short-circuit fascination with the violence of crime and punishment by separating the one from the other, while others attempt to go beyond the themes of criminality and guilt by confronting them explicitly. Whereas some artists seek to represent the incarcerated in their singularity so as to restore their humanity, others prefer to adopt a broad historical perspective that draws attention to social structures rather than individuals. Some works invite viewers to share in the physical and psychological experience of incarceration in order to blur the distinction between “inside” and “outside,” while others interrogate the grounds for identification between the incarcerated and people at a far remove from the justice system by foregrounding corrosive anger against emotional hierarchies established by the non-incarcerated.

Beyond crime and punishment 

  • 19 This is not the case in another art market dealing in the work of incarcerated artists, one in whic (...)

20The absence of certain expected subjects is the first striking feature of the way the experience of incarceration is framed by these artists, notably the absence of reference to crimes committed. This approach is particularly obvious when their works are shown collectively. In both the exhibition and catalogue “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” curator Nicole Fleetwood makes no mention of the offences committed, and the word “criminal” never appears. This undercuts any potential fascination for crime and prevents the crime committed from becoming a defining aspect of the incarcerated person in question.19 Diverting the spectator’s attention from the details of the offence also allows the curator to operate what Stuart Hall calls a “disarticulation” between crime and punishment (Hall, cited in Davis et al., p. 47): spectators are encouraged to interrogate their own curiosity about the crime, and to ask themselves what could justify the carceral practices displayed. As Davis et al. put it, such “disarticulation” is effective in that it opens up space for a critical “rearticulation” (p. 47), allowing other responses to acts of transgression to be imagined.

21Also absent are images of the crushing power of the sentence. Though the suffering and difficulty of prison life are never minimised in the work of these artists, the emphasis lies rather on incarcerated people’s ability to carve out spaces of liberty, dignity and creativity, however small they may be. It is thus not the repressive violence of the state which is emphasised, nor its power to punish, but rather the capacity of incarcerated people to resist the damaging effects of this punishment. These works thus avoid reifying state power and shy away from ambiguous fascination with its capacity to determine individuals’ fates and inflict dehumanising punishment.

Beyond innocence and guilt: Sara Bennett

22Though the strategy adopted by photographer Sara Bennett may at first seem to depart from such humanising practices, it actually attempts to take them further. Her photographic series Looking Inside shows women the viewer knows have been sentenced for homicide. These women have been photographed in the prisons where they are serving life sentences, not inside their cells, but in the spaces where they engage in activities—the library, the day-care centre, the kitchen—and where only certain small details, notably their uniforms, signal to viewers that these sites are spaces of constraint. The repressive nature of carceral architecture is not highlighted: the environment looks like a school or a hospital as much as a prison. Bennett thereby avoids reproducing clichés—bars on windows, barbed wire, cameras—which evoke the power of the institution to frame the living space. As the women are for the most part engaged in an activity, they are not shown as passive, suffering beings. What’s more, they participate in the act of being photographed as their pose has been adopted in collaboration with the photographer. The complicity between the subject and the photographer is visible in the gaze directed freely towards the lens and beyond, to the photo’s viewer. Printed on the very surface of the photos are handwritten captions several lines long, written in the first person by the photographed women. These women thus address the viewer both through their gaze and their language, in a framing that they have contributed to creating and in words of their own choosing.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Sara Bennett, Tiana, 25, in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019), Life Inside.

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

23By choosing this individualised mode of presentation while making the general nature of the women’s offence explicit, Bennett asks the viewer to go beyond questions of guilt or innocence. To do so, she has chosen not a minor infraction but the most difficult offence to pardon. Her work asks viewers to look into these women’s eyes and consider whether a life-sentence might ever be justified, even for the guilty, even for acts considered the most antisocial. She thus interrogates the repressive framework of the prison sentence as a response to social problems.

24Humanisation of these women, with whom Bennett has often established a long-term relationship, is at the heart of her practice, and this is evident in her other series also. In The Bedroom Project, she portrays formerly incarcerated women in the rooms they live in after their release, the photos once again accompanied by handwritten captions penned by the person depicted. In The Wedding Project, she photographs formerly incarcerated women who have served long sentences on their wedding day. In Life After Life in Prison, she follows women sentenced for life after their release on parole as they attempt to reintegrate society. All these series highlight desires these women have and which any viewer, however distant from the carceral system, may identify with: the desire to have a room of one’s own, to find love, to earn a living, to be useful to society.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Sara Bennett, Taylor, 36, in the Fire and Safety Office, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018), Life Inside.

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Singularising: Russell Craig

25Russell Craig’s self-portrait adopts a similarly humanising approach. While organising administrative papers from his trial and prison term after his release, he decided to glue them side by side on four large panels which together form a 2.4 by 2.4 meter canvas. He then painted his face on the panels, the top of his head almost touching the upper edge of the work, his t-shirt neck aligned along the bottom. This use of documents reproduces a common practice in art made in prison, where materials are hard to come by and administrative papers are often repurposed to make art.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Russell Craig, Self-Portrait (2016).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

26Through this portrait, Craig affirms his capacity to define himself in a visual language that contrasts with the modes of representation found in the legal documents he paints on. These documents, which designate him first and foremost as a “criminal,” are arranged in such a manner as to foreground the threat they make to eliminate him: the edges of the four panels form a cross in the middle, reminiscent of the crosshairs of a gun; the five mugshot photos that appear on the documents form a line extending from the lower right corner to the upper left corner, running over his face as if to cross him out. But Craig’s painting defeats these attempts, as the self-portrait dominates over the documents through its size, color and intensity. The subject’s frontal gaze directed towards the viewer defies the crosshairs, while remaining gentle. The structure of the work gives the viewer the option to take up the posture of the gun-holder—in other words, to adopt the perspective that the legal documents and their modes of representation construct. However, the viewer may decide instead not to focus on the crosshairs or the line of mugshot photos, but rather on the human face superposed upon them. The work thus forces the spectator to choose between two perspectives on the person depicted: the police gaze on the one hand, or a gaze capable of recognizing the singularity and humanity of the incarcerated person on the other. By posing this as an alternative, it interrogates the complicity of the viewer in the first option. Those who hold or who choose to hold the gun are the target of this composition, which explains the reference Craig invokes when discussing this work: the logo of the rap group Public Enemy, which features the silhouette of a police officer in the crosshairs of a gun (Mindell, 2017).

The broader picture: Jared Owens

27Jared Owen’s abstract paintings adopt a different approach to the representation of the incarcerated. Rather than depicting real, singular individuals, Owens uses the repetition of typified figures to create masses of very similar people, lined up across the surface of the canvas. To do so, he uses a stamp which takes up the human figures found in the famous Brooks slave ship diagram.20 This diagram was produced and widely circulated by abolitionists in the late eighteenth century in response to new British legislation which sought to regulate the slave trade by “humanising” it. The diagram shows black bodies arranged in the narrow spaces of the hull in a configuration that respected the new regulation, pointing to the inhumanity of human transport, even when “humanized.” The diagram has since been taken up by numerous black artists in works of memory concerning slavery (Finley, 2018). In Owen’s series of paintings entitled Ellapsium—a neologism invented by the artist, which combines ellapse with asylum—curves reminiscent of the slave ship on the Brooks diagram are juxtaposed with other forms that evoke the angles of contemporary carceral space. Both are filled in with the same stamped figures drawn from the Brooks diagram. Owens mixes into his paint dirt that he smuggled out of a Federal prison where he was incarcerated, thereby transporting the very materiality of carceral space onto the canvas. These techniques allow him to create an analogy between slavery and today’s racialised mass incarceration; to denounce the physical vessels, be they boats or buildings, involved in creating a post-slavery “racial caste”; and to underscore the persistent effects of segregating a whole swathe of the American population.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Jared Owens, Ellapsium (with steel mesh) (2022), Malin Gallery, New York.

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

28The repeated use of this same stamp allows Owens to create a mass effect, particularly in his Shadowboxing or Series 111 paintings, where rows of the stamped figures cover almost the entire canvas. He thereby invites us to consider the enormous scale of incarceration in the United States, along with the de-individualising effects it generates. Yet each figure is individually stamped into place, with differences in the thickness of paint used and in the pressure applied each time, such that each iteration is unique. Here, a figure appears to be wearing a beard; there, an afro; the guy next to him looks bald; another seems to have an eye looking back at the viewer, still another seems entirely darkened by shadow, no more than an opaque silhouette. The superimposition of some figures on others creates depth, as if an entire nation of shadow people stretched out behind those we see on the surface. Some seem to embrace each other, others appear engaged in conversation. In this manner, the figures represented resist uniformization. Owen’s use of colour contributes to this effort: his palette is restricted, favouring colours associated with prison—orange, blue, black, grey (Fleetwood, 2020a, p. 83-84)—while varying their intensity and tonality, thus creating changing levels of luminosity across the surface of the painting, producing singular effects on different zones and at different times of day. The variable thickness of the paint, notably where chunks of soil make the surface uneven, also counters any uniformization that the repetition of human figures might induce. Discretely but assuredly, these figures, simultaneously identical and unique, form a human community, which the viewer is invited to recognise—and join.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Jared Owens, Shadowboxing #3 (2022), Malin Gallery, New York.

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Entering into carceral space: Marcus Manganni

29The lived experience of carceral space is at the heart of Marcus Manganni’s sculptures and installations, which draw on observations made during his incarceration. Highly sensitive to the artificial neon lighting prevalent in prison, Manganni began using the only reflective material available to him, chip packets, to reflect the little natural light that penetrated into his solitary confinement cell through glass bricks. Observing the shapes of these reflections was a way for him to explore and domesticate his space of confinement. These experiments gave rise to his sculptural works, created from sheets of acrylic following his release. When viewers approach these large sculptures, generally exhibited in exterior settings, they see their own reflection in their surfaces. They thus find themselves simultaneously outside, free and in the open air, and projected inside a prison, their reflection inhabiting the angles and forms of carceral space. Manganni thereby blurs the distinction between society on the outside, which believes itself free, and society on the inside, which knows it is not. For the viewer, the difference between society on the outside and on the inside appears thus to be more a question of degree than of essence.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Marcus Manganni, SHU (2018).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

  • 21 Interview with Marcus Manganni, 27 November 2022.
  • 22 Interview with Marcus Manganni, 27 November 2022.

30Acrylic acts as a prism, such that Manganni’s sculptures transform white daylight into an array of colours. He thereby renders homage to Black Panther Fred Hampton and his attempt to counteract white privilege with a “rainbow coalition” which would transcend frontiers of race and class, and provide a new foundation for American society.21 Such a utopia represented the opposite of Marcus Manganni’s experience of prison society, where he found an even greater level of segregation than that which operates in American towns, many of which are divided into separate neighbourhoods along racial and socio-economic lines.22

Figure 7

Figure 7

Marcus Manganni, General Population (2022).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

31Manganni thereby both reproduces and resists carceral experience in his sculptures: viewers experience forms and contours produced by prison architecture without, however, ever being shut in; they are invited to be sensitive to light, without suffering from the light deprivation that occurs prison; they see all the colours of the rainbow in a place where normally white light reigns. The refracted light of his sculptures thereby proves to be refractory to carceral structures, bathing the viewer’s surroundings with vivid, almost unreal colors, and inviting them to imagine a differently coloured world. The viewer is thus led to share in Manganni’s lived experience of space in prison while simultaneously imagining another type of society.

The interior visions of the incarcerated: Jesse Krimes

32Jesse Krimes’ Apokaluptein 16389067 invites the viewer to share not a concrete but rather an imaginary experience linked to incarceration. The work’s title juxtaposes the transliteration of the Greek word for “apocalypse,” a moment of revelation, to Krimes’ own prison number. A vast work in cotton occupying a whole wall, Krimes created Apokaluptein 16389067 panel by panel, using a spoon and hair gel to transfer images from old newspapers and magazines onto bedsheets in the prison where he was incarcerated. With the help of fellow inmates he was able to smuggle out each panel as soon as it was completed. The work was assembled for the first time when he was released from prison. It is divided into three horizontal segments: hell, earth and paradise. Above each fly angels, nude women of idealised beauty, with mugshots of both famous and anonymous people for heads, though the angels flying over hell are headless. In this version of the Apocalypse, with its commentary on the values, the ideals of beauty and success, and the violence of contemporary society, Krimes plunges us into a vision of the world that has a very long religious, literary and aesthetic history, running from the imprisoned Saint John of the Bible to Dante and Francis Ford Coppola. Determined in all aspects by the conditions of production in prison, the work’s creation can be read as a particularly audacious form of resistance to the institutional effect of reducing the incarcerated person to a number—the very number the title references. However, the carceral world is largely absent as an explicit subject of the work, except in some discrete details. Through such an approach, Krimes affirms his status as an artist, capable of visions of the kind that have animated visual art traditions since the beginnings of Western culture, nourished by while avoiding being locked into his status of “incarcerated person.” Krimes’ response to the fantasised images of the “hardened criminal” and “victim-object” is therefore an invitation to share in the real fantasies of an incarcerated person.

Figure 8

Figure 8

Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067 (2010-2013).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Against pity: Sable Elyse Smith

  • 23 “I am interested in confrontation,” cited in Adam Bradley (2022).

33Sable Elyse Smith’s Coloring Books adopt a decidedly more offensive tone.23 This series of works began when the artist found a children’s colouring book on the streets in Harlem, the New York neighbourhood where she resides. The book attempts to explain the judicial system to children through drawings that are to be completed by the reader. It features characters such as “Judge Friendly” and other seemingly kind and fair agents, and the images are accompanied by captions which further underscore the just nature of trials and sentencing. One caption, for example, explains that anyone can become a judge, so long as they are honest and fair. Pedagogy and ideology intertwine to persuade children that justice is impartial, that it treats everyone the same way regardless of class, gender or race, that it is benevolent and does society good. The message is particularly pernicious in a publication found on a street in Harlem, a traditionally black neighbourhood, where the percentage of residents directly affected by mass incarceration is much higher than in white neighbourhoods, and where children are more likely to have a member of their family in prison.

Figure 9

Figure 9

Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 100, (2022).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission. Source: JTT, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photographer: Charles Benton.

34The artist, whose own father was incarcerated for a large part of her childhood, has enlarged the images in the book with their soothing captions and painted on them in turn, scrawling on them with no respect for the outlines and adding skin colours so as to denounce racial hierarchies. In the series’ latest instalment, the artist’s solo exhibition “Tithe” at the JTT Gallery in Manhattan in September and October 2022, Smith establishes parallels between such representations of the justice system and religious thought: Judge Friendly is transfigured into Saint Francis of Assisi; three sanctified judges burn in a boat on fire; other judges are painted with empty faces, except for one, whose eyes have been gauged out. On this last image, the beginning of the caption in the original colouring book—“All kinds of people are judges”—remains intact, but Smith has replaced the ending by “in my hood,” such that the judges in their court robes become the objects rather than the subjects of judgement—her own. She thus upends the codes of religious painting and underscores the more or less explicit links between religious thought and the seemingly secular logic of the justice system, notably around issues of judgement, guilt, suffering and punishment. Using a lively and almost childishly naive palette, Smith violently rejects the condescending gaze of the well-intentioned designers of the colouring book, who seek to educate young children who, like she was, are confronted with the justice system, and who try to turn their parents into “good citizens” through incarceration. The captions she superposes over the book’s text are sometimes devoid of ambiguity: “Fuck Church Fuck State.” Her work leaves no place for pity or reformatory compassion. This has led some to conclude that it precludes empathetic responses (Bradley, 2022), however I would argue the contrary: Smith shows that the condition for any genuine empathy is a non-hierarchical relationship, free from condescending pity.

Figure 10

Figure 10

Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 97, (2022).

Protected by copyright, reproduced with the artist’s permission. Source: JTT, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photographer: Charles Benton.


35Through these diverse but complementary strategies, these six artists challenge conventional representations, circulated by the state and in the media, which create an affective imbalance between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated, thereby obstructing empathy. Against the uniformization engendered by the mugshot that defines its subject as belonging to a separate group of human beings, they oppose the singularity of the portrait and the self-portrait (Sara Bennett, Russell Craig), or suggest more subtle forms of resistance to the formatting of individuals imposed by incarceration on a massive scale (Jared Owens). Against visions of powerful carceral structures of confinement that crush the incarcerated, they show how individuals can appropriate and transform their experience of this environment (Sara Bennett, Marcus Manganni), or repurpose its materials—prison soil, bedsheets, reflective surfaces—and use them to imagine another world (Jared Owens, Jesse Krimes, Marcus Manganni). Against colourblind imaginaries of justice, which paradoxically enable the American justice system to aggravate racial inequalities (Alexander, 2020), these artists make the colour of the American justice system visible (Sable Elyse Smith) and place contemporary incarceration within a longer history of slavery and racial segregation in the USA (Jared Owens). All these visual strategies refuse to stigmatise the incarcerated and contrast with the romanticised figures of the “hardened criminal” and the “victim-object,” rejecting the hierarchies that these figures presuppose and their associated affects of excessive admiration or condescending pity. Instead, these artists encourage the non-incarcerated viewer to see the incarcerated as equals, to imagine what it is to feel what they feel, to see them as part of their own community. Even if only for the brief moment the viewer contemplates their work, these artists transform prison walls into bridges between the inside and the outside of the prison—a necessary condition for expanding the contestation of mass incarceration and for imagining other ways of rendering justice.

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1 The exhibitions: “111... and other stories” by Jared Owens, Malin Gallery; “Tithe” by Sable Elyse Smith, JTT Gallery; “Alive on Arrival” by Marcus Manganni, Beckett Creek Gallery; “1-800 Happy Birthday,” Worthless Gallery; “Escaping Time,” Governor’s Island.

2 A piece by the abolitionist artist jackie sumell and a series of images from the neighborhoods most affected by incarceration by the Spatial Information Design Lab and Columbia University’s School of Architecture.

3 Notable curators include Risa Puleo, curator of “Walls Turned Sideways” at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 2018-2019 and Nicole Fleetwood, curator of “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1. Significant patrons include Agnes Gund, the Mellon Foundation—who in February 2023 announced the setting up of a $125 million fund for art projects on mass incarceration—the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

4 By comparison, America's incarceration rate is six times higher than that of France (Fair & Walmsley, 2021).

5 This has been correlated with a significant increase in the population of immigrant detention centers (Martin, 2015), as well as substantial growth in the use of various forms of community surveillance, such as the use of electronic tags (Weisbud & Virani, 2022).

6 “Relational art” is used here in the broadest sense of the term: the artists Fleetwood discusses in her book produce work that is less event-based than those discussed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Relational Aesthetics (1998), which formalised the art movement of the same name. The work Fleetwood analyses and exhibits are primarily paintings, sculptures, murals, photographs, videos and installations which invite contemplation, rather than works that are cocreated with a museum audience's active participation and collaboration.

7 This use of the word “criminal” to designate the most violent offences is also common in academia. See for example Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor (2012) “The Three Forms of the Criminal Act” which discusses only acts of murder, or Amal Hachet (Nouvelles figures de l’acte criminel [New Forms of the Criminal Act]) where a “criminal” act is treated as a synonym for a with “monstruous” act.

8 See the Crime Data Explorer on the FBI website.

9 The term was popularised by John DiIulio Jr in an article in The Weekly Standard, “The coming of the superpredators,” 27 November 1995. The term was subsequently taken up by media outlets.

10 See Jamie Fader (2016).

11 See Georges Didi-Huberman (2012, p. 37-79) who analyses the role played by the photographers Hubert Diamond and Albert Londe in English and French psychiatric and police institutions in the nineteenth century.

12 With the exception of some jurisdictions (San Francisco Police Department, 2020; Fleetwood, 2020b), mugshots that are taken may be published in the press.

13 Exhibited on the walls of the New York State Pavilion, this work was comprised of 13 very large format mugshot photos of people who had appeared in a New York police flyer designating them as the most wanted criminals of 1963.

14 On stigmatisation as the creation of a separate category, produced by the exercise of power and enduring over time, see Bruce Link and Jo Phelan (2001),

15 See Michelle Alexander (2020) and Valas & Dietrich (2014).

16 On this topic, see Charlotte Lacoste’s Séductions du bourreau, négation des victimes [Seductive perpetrators, negated victims] (2010), which analyses novels on infamous perpetrators of mass crimes.

17 This tradition is stronger in Europe. See, for example, Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (1957).

18 See Benoît Tadié (2018) on the contradictions that animate representations of transgression in American crime fiction.

19 This is not the case in another art market dealing in the work of incarcerated artists, one in which the criminal aspect of the incarcerated person’s identity is emphasised, creating what has been labelled by some as “murderabilia” (Spitznagel, 2018).

20 See the plan of the Brooks ship constructed in Liverpool in 1781.

21 Interview with Marcus Manganni, 27 November 2022.

22 Interview with Marcus Manganni, 27 November 2022.

23 “I am interested in confrontation,” cited in Adam Bradley (2022).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Sara Bennett, Tiana, 25, in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019), Life Inside.
Fichier image/png, 1,7M
Titre Figure 2
Légende Sara Bennett, Taylor, 36, in the Fire and Safety Office, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018), Life Inside.
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Titre Figure 3
Légende Russell Craig, Self-Portrait (2016).
Fichier image/jpeg, 278k
Titre Figure 4
Légende Jared Owens, Ellapsium (with steel mesh) (2022), Malin Gallery, New York.
Fichier image/jpeg, 985k
Titre Figure 5
Légende Jared Owens, Shadowboxing #3 (2022), Malin Gallery, New York.
Fichier image/png, 2,3M
Titre Figure 6
Légende Marcus Manganni, SHU (2018).
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Titre Figure 7
Légende Marcus Manganni, General Population (2022).
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Figure 8
Légende Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067 (2010-2013).
Fichier image/jpeg, 304k
Titre Figure 9
Crédits Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 100, (2022).
Fichier image/jpeg, 728k
Titre Figure 10
Légende Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 97, (2022).
Fichier image/jpeg, 573k
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Naomi Toth, « Transforming walls into bridges: art, empathy and mass incarceration in the United States »Hybrid [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Naomi Toth

Naomi Toth is Assistant professor of English at University Paris-Nanterre, France. She works on anglo-american modernist writers, in particular Virginia Woolf, and on contemporary documentary aesthetics and the justice system. She has edited a special issue of the comparative literature journal Synthesis entitled “Just Art: Documentary Poetics and Justice” (2021), and is currently writing a book and making a documentary film on the subject, as part of a project financed by the Institut universitaire de France.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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