America's 10 worst prisons: the plate collection


Every year the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia invites artists to submit proposals for installations within its prison walls. Those chosen are given a grant to complete their work, plus a stipend. Originally planned to run for a year, the exhibition was extended to a year and a half. I requested that my installation be in the gift shop so that viewers might temporarily confuse the plates with actual souvenirs.

My idea for the installation—America's 10 Worst Prisons: The Plate Collection—was to tie the history of solitary confinement at ESP to the present conditions of the American penal system. The inspiration for the project came from seeing a photo of a decorative, ceramic dessert plate, created at the Rihouet Factory in Paris, circa 1838, featuring the facade of ESP.  It was part of a larger collection of souvenir plates showing images of then-popular Philadelphia tourist attractions. Seeing a fortress-like prison, however, at the center of an extravagant dish designed to serve sweets to the privileged class struck me as weird and darkly comical, even if the original intention was to spotlight ESP, a relatively new building and site of a “progressive” development in prison reform—solitary confinement.

I learned that isolating prisoners at ESP was finally discontinued in the early 20th century, by then considered cruel and unusual punishment. In the last 30 years, however, the practice nationwide has grown to unprecedented levels, with a large percentage of prisoners held in super maximum security.

By "serving" today’s most disreputable prisons on antique-style dessert plates, I mean to combine past and present and point to the horrendous prison conditions existing in modern America—a society with the largest incarcerated population of any first-world country.  By maintaining the essential decorative style of the original 19th-century plate while updating the central image of the prison and revising certain border elements (such as replacing the ring of gold leaf with barbed wire), I hope to engage viewers and incite consciousness.

The plates have traveled to I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, to be part of the exhibition “Incarceration Nation,” on view from October 27 to December 17, 2016.