The Writing on the Wall: Voices of the Incarcerated

Where the High Line meets 14th Street, visitors can enter a series of three rooms designed to evoke prison cells. Each is 9 by 6 feet, 8 feet tall, and is covered on every surface with writing: essays about womanhood; poems about race and family; pages from a hand-drawn graphic novel; letters from incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people around the world.

The rooms are part of the installation “The Writing on the Wall,” a collaboration between the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, the English professor Baz Dreisinger, the design studio Openbox and the architectural firm MASS Design Group to draw attention to the estimated 11 million people in prison worldwide.

“Justice has always been a complicated thing to maintain in the United States,” Mr. Thomas said. “We lock people away and we don’t even think about them i cant write my essay, but we have to think about how much good that is doing us as a society, and what does this mean for humanity?”

“When you read someone’s words you have to in some way become them,” he added.

In 2013 the artist visited Dr. Dreisinger — who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network — while brainstorming for the 2014 People’s Biennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. She showed him a stack of papers in a closet: writing from prisoners in 50 countries that she had collected in her research over the years.

Mr. Thomas laid some across the floor. “Both of us knew at that moment that it was a really powerful thing,” Dr. Dreisinger said.

“The Writing on the Wall” is made from quarter-inch-thick polycarbonate and acrylic. Some 2,000 pages of writing by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Uganda, Britain, China, South Africa, El Salvador, Norway, Australia, and Brazil were scanned and printed. The palimpsest-like layering of these stories creates windows and the suggestions of bars.

“There is all of this brilliance that we have warehoused away,” Dr. Dreisinger said. “We need to look at it.”

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