Showcasing the DNR: Exploring 'States of Incarceration' at the Michigan History Museum

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A national traveling exhibition on incarceration is set to open at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing.

Exploring ‘States of Incarceration’ at the Michigan History Museum

Museum Director, Michigan History Center
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

A historical timeline shows the increase in U.S. incarceration rates.

Michigan’s history of incarceration is full of contradictions.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, one of the first institutions proposed by the new governor was a prison. A decade later, Michigan became the world’s first English- speaking government to ban the death penalty. By the early 20th century, Michigan State Prison in Jackson was the largest walled prison in the world.

From Sept. 8, 2018, through May 19, 2019, the Michigan History Center, a division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is hosting a national traveling exhibition called States of Incarceration at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing.

The exhibit uses history and culture to tackle today’s urgent questions about incarceration – the act of confining someone against his or her will – in prisons, jails, detention centers, and some kinds of schools and hospitals.

The huge rise in the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. over the past 40 years is called mass incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union website, the U.S. incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent, with 2.3 million people in jail and prison, far outpacing population growth and crime.

“This exhibit is a great opportunity to think through some of the questions and contradictions surrounding incarceration in Michigan and the United States,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center.

The exhibit features artifacts of incarceration, including this slip, which was part of a reform school uniform.

More than 700 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities, spearheaded by the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey, created the States of Incarceration exhibit project.

The individuals grew up in a United States that incarcerates more of its people, including immigrants, than any country in the world – and at any point in its history.

Recently, a new bipartisan consensus concedes the criminal justice system is broken. There is intense conflict over how to fix it.

In 2015, the students and former inmates came together to ask: How did this happen? What new questions does the past challenge us to ask about what is happening now? To find answers, they examined their own communities’ histories.

Through courses at 30 universities, local teams shared stories, searched archives and visited correctional facilities. Each team created one piece of the exhibition, which was launched in New York City in April 2016.

The project’s run at the Michigan History Museum is a collaborative partnership between the museum and Michigan State University.

These panels in the exhibit describe the circumstances of Raymond Holzhey’s story.

During the fall 2018 semester, MSU history professor Dr. LaShawn Harris and her students will explore various ways Michigan prisons served as possible sites of creativity, pleasure and leisure during the early 20th century. They will contribute a piece to the exhibition, which will be installed in early 2019.

“Students will research the formal and informal rehabilitation programs, including education, art, music and sports, that Michigan prisons offered (during that time),” Harris said. “Students will also look for inmates’ experiences within creative rehabilitative prison programs.”

Michigan History Museum staff also supplemented the exhibition with information and artifacts about the history of incarceration in Michigan.

The exhibit includes exceptional historical artifacts from the Michigan History Center’s collections, including rare prisoner photographs; elaborate furniture made at the Jackson prison; interactive experiences and exhibit components developed specifically for children.

To help the 65,000 school children who visit the history museum every year connect with these complicated histories, the museum developed a section on the history of youth incarceration in Michigan’s reform schools.

The State Industrial Home for Girls in Adrian put girls to work in various jobs, including working in the school’s greenhouses.

In 1856, the State House of Correction for Juvenile Offenders opened in Lansing. Boys and girls under 18 were sent there for offenses ranging from larceny and vagrancy to foul language.

Girls were sent to their own institutions beginning in the 1860s. In 1893, the Lansing school became the Industrial School for Boys, where residents learned trades they could use upon their release.

“Sometimes, children worked at the schools, in the fields or in furniture workshops. At other times, they were indentured to work in private homes for a set amount of time,” said Rachel Clark, Michigan History Center education specialist. “County agents investigated ‘host’ families and did periodic welfare checks on the indentured children.”

Today's foster care and juvenile-justice programs learned both positive and negative lessons from Michigan's reform schools. Elementary-age visitors to the exhibit can follow a boy and a girl through the schools and are encouraged to ask, “what is fair?”

The exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, Sept. 8 with special free admission and light refreshments beginning at 11 a.m. and a talk by Dr. Heather Ann Thompson at 1 p.m.

In the 1930s, prison chaplain Albert M. Ewert encouraged rehabilitation through education and art.

Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan and the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. She writes extensively on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system and served as an advisor on the States of Incarceration project.

During her talk, which is free and open to the public, Thompson will speak about her book, as well as the history of mass incarceration in the United States.

Additional public programs scheduled during the exhibition’s run will include film screenings, panel discussions, and presentations that explore the history of incarceration in Michigan and the United States, as well as current bipartisan efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

Programs are supported by the Michigan Humanities Council. Admission to the exhibition is free with regular museum admission. The Michigan History Museum is open seven days a week. For museum hours and information on the exhibition and its programs, visit the museum’s website at

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/Note to editors: Contact: John Pepin, Showcasing the DNR series editor, at 906-226-1352. Accompanying photos and a text-only version of this story are available below for download and media use. Suggested captions follow. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Text-only version of story.

Close: Visitors to the exhibit can share their thoughts on incarceration.

Ewert: In the 1930s, prison chaplain Albert M. Ewert encouraged rehabilitation through education and art. This photo, signed by the prison jazz band, illustrates how he encouraged inmates to draw, paint, write poetry and play music. (Archives of Michigan photo)

Exhibit: The “States of Incarceration” exhibit, created by the Humanities Action Lab and students from 30 colleges and universities across the country, is a series of panels that explore case studies of incarceration.

Holzhey Panel: These panels in the exhibit describe the circumstances of Raymond Holzhey’s story.

Holzhey: The exhibit includes the story of Raymond Holzhey, a stagecoach robber and murderer who suffered from a childhood traumatic brain injury. After being imprisoned, surgery fixed his broken skull and Holzhey’s personality changed. He became a model prisoner, serving as the prison’s librarian, newspaper editor and photographer. (Archives of Michigan photo).

Home: The State Industrial Home for Girls in Adrian put girls to work in various jobs, including working on horticulture in the school’s greenhouses, in hopes they would learn a trade. (Archives of Michigan photo)

Slip: This slip was part of a young girl’s uniform at one of Michigan’s 20th century Native American boarding schools.

Timeline-1 and Timeline-2: A historical timeline illustrates the rapid rates of incarceration in America in recent decades./

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to