The artist Hank Willis Thomas is taking a stand on behalf of the world’s incarcerated population, many of whom are suffering as the coronavirus pandemic ravages prisons, with a new installation of his work, On Sunday night, the artist will project texts written by people in jail onto the facades of buildings tied to the criminal justice system in lower Manhattan.
It’s “an effort to insist that people in detention not be forgotten especially in this moment, and to center the voices of those directly impacted in our consciousness as we face a pandemic,” Thomas wrote on Instagram.
The artwork was created in collaboration with Baz Dreisinger, executive director of the think tank Incarceration Nations Network. Dreisinger has spent years collecting prisoners’ writings, sourced from some 50 countries.
The pair first turned those passages into art last fall, for a public art installation on the High Line in New York City. The texts papered the walls of a cell-like installation, with essays, letters, poems, and even graphic novels giving voice to the experience of being locked up.
Today, prisoners face an even more dire situation. By living in close quarters and lacking protective gear, their conditions easily enable the spread of COVID-19. As of the first week of May, 20,119 people in prison had tested positive and there have been at least 304 related deaths, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet covering the US criminal justice system. Even as several states and countries around the world begin to reopen after lockdown, the coronavirus remains a threat to the health and safety of those behind bars.
The frightening new reality facing inmates now inspired Thomas and Dreisinger to bring back for a global tour. It also includes new writings inspired by the fear and uncertainty of the present moment.
“One piece—about ‘the voices behind the wall’ during the pandemic—was written last week by my loved one serving his 27th year of incarceration in New York and scared for his life,” wrote Dreisinger on Instagram.
In this first restaging of the work, Thomas and Dreisinger chose New York City buildings linked closely to mass incarceration. That included the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as the Tombs, which mostly holds pre-trial detainees, who are still legally innocent until proven guilty, and the New York City courts complex.
“As the death toll began to grow, fears of losing loved ones grew too. Talk turned to protecting our most vulnerable population; yet we forgot and overlooked those imprisoned throughout our state,” proclaimed bold yellow type below the pediment on the neoclassical New York County Supreme Court.
By sharing inmates’ words, Thomas and Dreisinger hope to illuminate the plight of those behind bars during this global crisis, and inspire prison reform.