Anti-Prison Organizing and Museums: The Politics of Remembering and Forgetting

By Therese Quinn, Matthew Yasuoka, Jose Luis Benavides and other members of the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project


On July 6, 2016, Minnesota school-worker Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer after being pulled over for a broken tail light. Ten days later the Science Museum of Minnesota posted a placard at the entrance of its, “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit (now at the Chicago History Museum) which noted that the museum joined “the community in mourning the tragic killing of Philando Castile.” After fielding a barrage of criticism by outraged visitors and online trolls, less than a week later, the plaque was removed. The chief complaint, according to a museum spokesperson, was that the museum was “taking sides” and comments posted on social media suggested that the museum shouldn’t “push opinions on anyone” and asked, “have they posted a sign for the many police officers killed while on patrol? What does ‘science’ have to do with race ?”

Like many institutions, museums are often ill-equipped and reluctant to take a specific political stance, as this case highlights. And what is needed, now more than ever, is a public commitment to political recognition and mourning—against forgetting and erasure—aimed at igniting collective action and transformation. From Michael Brown to Philando Castile, Sandra Bland to Bettie Jones, and on, and on, police in the US kill more people on any given day than other countries do in years. And these reports are still an undercount. Yet, the ongoing trauma of these deaths of our neighbors, friends, relatives, and children has not resulted in the kind of attention that this urgent social concern would seem to warrant.


Photo: Stateville Prison 2016. Credit: Illinois Deaths in Custody Project

Prisons, jails and other punitive institutions are often off the radar as objects of interest and study for museums, arts organizations, and related cultural institutions, which may be fearful of being charged with “taking sides,” or simply oblivious. Deaths, and also lives, are hidden behind confining walls; there is no memorial at Cook County Jail acknowledging the abrupt end of Mr. Nelson’s life, no plaque or marker commemorating the many individuals who die each year while incarcerated in Illinois, no monument to the monumental loss of those who are incarcerated across the nation to their families and communities, and to us all.

In 2017 at least twenty-two people died at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. We scour media outlets and file Freedom of Information Requests with Cook County Jail to confirm names and glean institutionally produced facts: Clifford V. Nelson, 49, died while being transferred from the Cook County Jail; Lopez House, 47, collapsed and died at the jail; Lindbert McIntosh, 57, died in his sleep; Jerome Monroe, 56, died in his sleep at Cook County Jail. By November, these deaths, and the mounting total, somewhat surprisingly, made local news.

Still, the deaths are not actually that surprising. Death is business as usual in our nation’s prisons and jails.

Approximately 80 to 100 people die annually in the Illinois prisons, according to 2014 reporting, by Chicago’s WBEZ reporters Robert Wildeboer and Patrick Smith. If juvenile “boot camps,” jails, and immigration detention centers are included, this number jumps higher.

However, despite the regularity and number of these fatalities, it is challenging to access information about these individuals and the specific circumstances of their deaths. Most people who die in US jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers remain invisible, with little and often no information shared with family, friends and the broader public.

Toya Frazier died on December 1, 2015, one day after starting a three-year prison sentence for theft at the Champaign County Jail in Illinois. But Ms. Frazier’s family didn’t hear this news from the sheriff’s office, county coroner, or medical staff. Instead, the night she died in jail her sisters received a call from another inmate. Her family contacted the jail but weren’t able to confirm the death. They learned more details the next day when the story was briefly reported in a local paper. Weeks after her death the family was still waiting for an official notification and full explanation, according to excellent reporting by local journalist Brian Dolinar.

Scant and inadequate legislation exists. In 2000 Congress passed the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act requiring every state to report deaths in custody from each state institution, including prisons. Each death is documented on a Custodial Death Report and every quarter the Department of Justice collects the data registering the total number of deaths in custody. However, the accuracy of the data is up for debate. In an October 2015 analysis, the Department of Justice discovered that law enforcement departments under-reported arrest related deaths more than 50%. Stripped of their individual stories, lives, and identities, the deceased are transformed into statistics released each year.

However spare the details, the stark facts, the litany of deaths, has not spurred national, or even statewide, conversations about the numbers of people who die while in custody, and the reasons for their deaths. The causes of death named by institutions—asphyxiation by hanging, died in his sleep, collapsed—are uninterrogated. What patterns are discernible when we study the reports?

In other jurisdictions—for example Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom—a death in custody (a term that encompasses a wide range of state controlled facilities including immigration detention centers, prisons, jails, juvenile correctional centers, mental health facilities) triggers an independent investigation or a formal inquest. These processes don’t necessarily result in findings that are just or transformative, but at the very least they require a sliver of public accountability.

An investigation is not enough: necessary but never sufficient. Many organizations and communities have identified that in the short term, we need to stop the flow of people into these places. One way to end death in custody is to ensure that people don’t end up locked up.

Most people are imprisoned at in jail because they cannot post a bond of a few hundred or thousand dollars, and this lack of resources can be life-ending. The Chicago Community Bond Fund sister organizations in cities across the US, and national campaigns like 2017’s Black Mama’s Bail Out from Southerners on New Ground, attempt to counter this risk by raising the cash that will ensure people are freed, and pushes campaigns to end the practice of money bond (an initiative challenged by predatory bond companies).

But this is trickier in prisons where no amount of money will get people free. People serving time in prisons cannot be bonded out. While a smattering of public interest and jailhouse lawyers work on improving conditions for people inside—for example fighting to ensure that people don’t die from cell temperatures rising to 150℉ in the summer—people inside prisons are scrubbed from our communities, landscapes and humanity.


Photo: Stateville Prison 2016. Credit: Illinois Deaths in Custody Project

Contemporary calls for museums to encourage participation, become relevant, and even offer services, are necessary, but inadequate. Rather than engaging in evaluation practices that measure exhibit elements attended to and facts learned, we suggest that museums assess how they encourage visitors to remember what and who has been made invisible, and to imagine and to practice other, more just, ways of living. Far from radical, this reorganizing of priorities has a long history in the field through powerful declarations released by the Movement for a New Museology (MINOM) from the 1970s to the present. For example, in 2017, MINOM asked museums to reorient their focus from preservation, to transformation. “Memory for all of us is a deliberate form of resistance, a struggle against the destruction of ways of life that do not fit into any form of colonialism, [and for] the invention of futures” MINOM stated in its recent Declaração de Córdoba. Yet, as CeCe McDonald, Kai M. Green, and Treva C. Ellison (2017) remind in their essay, “What Remembering Forgets, What Forgetting Remembers”:

Liberation and freedom might be bound up in strategic practices of forgetfulness: If America taught us how to forget, what does it look like to forget America, its grammar and its logics?

We want a world without prisons, without deaths-by-incarceration. What logics do museums need to forget to be able to focus their attention on these crisis conditions? And what must museums help us remember and forget, together, that will help us build better a better present and future?


Illinois Deaths in Custody Project seeks to document, archive, highlight and mourn the deaths of all people in custody in Illinois. Key participants include:

Therese Quinn, Director of Museum and Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explores education, the arts, and cultural institutions as sites of justice-work in books including Art and Social Justice Education: Culture as Commons (with Lisa Hochtritt and John Ploof) and articles with QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, the Journal of Museum Education, the Abolitionist: A Publication of Critical Resistance, the Monthly Review, Curriculum Inquiry, and Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, and more.

Matthew Yasuoka, a multiple year Hawai’i State Champion in debate and extemporaneous speaking, completed an MA in Museum and Exhibition Studies in 2017 with a thesis titled, Hawaii/Hawai’i: Space, Alterity and the Settler Imaginary. A native Hawaiian, Matthew will begin studies at Loyola University School in fall 2017, and plans to provide legal advocacy for indigenous struggles.

Jose Luis Benavides (b. 1986 Chicago, IL) is an artist, filmmaker, writer and arts educator. He has been a teaching artist with the National Museum of Mexican Art, Young Chicago Authors, Chicago Arts Partnership in Education and the Chicago Public Library – YOUmedia teen/technology center at Back of the Yards.

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