Community members gathered at Art 180 gallery for the opening of “Performing Statistics,” an installation of interactive art created by ten incarcerated youths, meant to foster meaningful dialogue about the U.S. prison system, school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and youth incarceration in Virginia.
VCU alum Mark Strandquist and members from Rise for Youth, a bipartisan campaign in support of community alternatives to youth incarceration, collaborated to organize the exhibit, which opened on Oct. 2.
“It doesn’t work out on paper,” Strandquist said.
“If you’re spending $130,000 and then that kid is ending up back in jail three years later — that just shows me that prisons don’t work. They don’t work for us as taxpayer, they don’t work for the youth themselves, they don’t work for any sense of justice.”
The signage information for part of the exhibit explains that last spring, youth participating in Art 180’s Teen Leadership council learned about what the school-to-prison pipeline is and how they can be advocates for themselves and their peers. The teens also heard presentations from Jeree Thomas of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Just Children, and learned about the policies that have shaped Virginia into being the state with the highest number of referrals to the juvenile justice system for incidents that occur at school.
The exhibit explains that Thomas’ dialogues with the youth centered on the idea that the system can work for them, not just against them, hence empowering them to create change. The teens were then able to interpret and present the information interactively, which is represented by a modular pipeline, similar to a game board that can be manipulated and moved around to create a visual experience for the public.
The pipeline pieces were one of the many art projects made by the ten kids from the Richmond juvenile detention center who visited Art 180 regularly over the summer and learned skills including photography, audio production and screen printing. They were each part of the post-disposition program, which means they will be released “imminently.”
Strandquist believes these kids are the ones who need to lead the conversation about how to change the justice system for youth in America since they have lived it and have seen both the positives and the negatives.
For me this was about working with the youth as experts, as not only creative experts … but as legal and political experts,” Strandquist said. “And what would happen if we connected them with amazing artists, and activists and lawyers — community experts from a variety of perspectives.”
Their expertise was on display when Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham went to see the exhibit. Strandquist said Durham was planning on bringing all of his new recruits to see the exhibit to see the what the kids in the community they’re serving think about how they’ve been treated.
The kids in the program made a police training manual with suggestion for how the police department can show more empathy and perform better including “grow up watching your family struggle to survive” and “get more police that aren’t white.”
The number of children behind bars has gone down since the late 1990s when there were more than 116,000 locked up nationally; as of 2010 there were 79,166, according to the Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention. In Virginia there were 1,860 kids either detained or committed in 2010. But even though the numbers are going down, some groups are dedicated to bringing that number down to zero.
Trey Hartt, a resource development manager at Art 180 and Rise for Youth member, said the organization wants the $130,000 it costs to lock up one person for a year to be invested into more community-based rehabilitation alternatives.
“All of these statistics are huge and overwhelming, but how can we create a way to show that the people behind those numbers are human, not just numbers,” Hartt said. “They have stories, they have lives that are full and rich. So art is that vehicle that connects those two sides.”
Hartt said the purpose of this work is meant to make a complicated topic more digestible for people who might not know it’s an issue.
“In January, once the General Assembly begins we’re really going to be pushing hard, showing up in lots of different spaces, probably mostly in Richmond, as we target legislators who are voting on the Governor’s proposed two-year budget,” Hartt said.
Strandquist said he was still at VCU when he read The Sentencing Project’s August 2013 report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee which concluded that, “the government has both fostered and perpetuated those inequalities in clear violation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as other international agreements.”
Strandquist said this was when he realized there was a major problem affecting communities, and he began working to solve it. The number Strandquist says he always goes back to is the recidivism rate for youth. Rise for Youth estimates that 73.5 percent of juveniles will be reconvicted within three years of their release once they’ve entered the system.
“To me (mass incarceration) is a humanitarian crisis,” Strandquist said.
The Performing Statistics opening last Friday originally included a city-wide parade as well, but it was rescheduled to Nov. 6 due to inclement weather warning. Along with the parade next month the Performing Statistics exhibit will be on display at 1708 and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Nov. 13. It will hit the road on a statewide tour Nov. 15-20.
Correction: This article originally stated that, "They also don’t work for kids like Sincere Green, Nicole Smith, Tyler-James Johnson and Sha’Quana Johnson ... he ended up in federal prison. Smith dropped out of school after an argument with her principal, started prostituting and ended up with a suspended sentence after soliciting a police officer."
In the original article, these accounts were portrayed as factual. Although the stories are based on true accounts, they are partially fictionalized stories written by teens in Art 180's Teen Leadership council, not the incarcerated youth that Art 180 worked with this summer. They are labeled in the gallery as such.
Print Managing Editor, Matt Leonard
Matt is a senior print journalism major and political science minor graduating this December. Matt began at the CT as a contributing writer before moving up to staff writer and online news editor. Matt worked at The Denver Post with the web team as a Dow Jones News Fund digital intern last summer, and previously interned with WTVR/CBS6. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn