‘Prison Obscura’ Exhibition Questions American Jails

Prison Obscura, an exhibition at Scripps College’s Clark Humanities Museum, focuses on the rarely seen aspects of the American prison industrial complex. On display since Sept. 2, the collection features photographs taken by prisoners, breathtakingly gritty portraits, letters written by inmates and several other media to build the case that Americans need to question their prison system more widely. 

In particular, the exhibition deals with the silence surrounding prisons, both within prisons and outside of them. Within prisons, there is a certain solitary nature to the confinement that is captured in the collection. More importantly, the exhibition sheds light on the lack of public engagement in prison policy and silence on issues when it comes to the prison system.

Pete Brook created and curated the traveling exhibition, bringing together nine projects that show an entirely unfiltered picture of life inside U.S. prisons.  

“I believe the United States needs to pursue large-scale prison and sentencing reform,” Brook wrote in his blog, Prison Photography. “We must stop warehousing people and be creative with rehabilitation. Prisons in the U.S. are socially and economically unsustainable. As they exist, prisons are a liability. Often discussions on prison issues are framed incorrectly. Sometimes prisons are ignored.”

Brook has been involved with curating prison-themed art exhibitions since 2010 and has curated six exhibitions covering a range of topics from Women in [Prison] Photography to Non Sufficient Funds, a student-created display of prison artwork in a correctional facility. 

Brook’s enthusiasm doesn’t fail to come through in the Scripps exhibition. The nine projects that Brook brings together unite non-traditional imagery, including surveillance photography, aerial photography and prisoner letters in a collective viewer experience. 

Khadija Ganijee CMC ’18 visited the exhibition with several other classmates and found the project both startling and effective. 

“I’ve lived in California my entire life, so I constantly hear about problems with overcrowding with the prisons here, but I never knew prison conditions were such a problem across the nation,” she said. “For some time, the idea of bad prison conditions has been in the back of my mind, but this exhibit really put a face to those ideas in my mind.”  

Putting a face to ideas often pushed to the back of most people’s minds is exactly what Brook aimed to accomplish with his inclusion of an exhibit by Robert Gumpert, Take A Picture, Tell A Story. Through his stunning black and white portraits of prisoners, Gumpert’s nine-year effort puts a human face to the larger issues with which the exhibition deals. 

Equally powerful, the Brown v. Plata exhibit incorporates evidence from a class-action lawsuit against the state of California that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The result of the case was huge in ordering California to release 46,000 prisoners to relieve some of the issues accompanying overcrowding. The exhibit highlights the terrible conditions that existed and remain today, even with the Supreme Court order in effect.  

“The most potent exhibit for me was the pictures of the evidence for the Brown v. Plata case,” Ganijee said. “Those pictures really showed me a side of prisons that I had never seen before.”

Prison Obscura is part of the Scripps Humanities Institute theme of silence for Fall 2014. As Juliet Koss, the Humanities Institute director, put it, the Institute “will explore the theory and practice of silence: voluntary and coerced, solitary and communal, literal and metaphoric.”  

Prison Obscura encourages students to break that longstanding silence, urging some kind of social action against the status quo in the prison system.  

In addition to the regular exhibition, curator Pete Brook will speak Oct. 2 at 4:15 p.m. in Prison Silences, a lecture at Scripps’ Garrison Theater. A reception will be held immediately after from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Clark Humanities Museum.  

Prison Obscura will be on display until Oct. 17 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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