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States of Incarceration: Show Looks At Life Behind Bars

Wilson Sayre

Is Krome Detention Center an immigration processing center or a prison for immigrants?

That’s the question University of Miami students looked at as part of a new traveling exhibit about incarceration in America called “States of Incarceration.”

The exhibit currently lines the walls of the Wesley Foundation gallery on the University of Miami Campus. Each panel of the exhibit tackles a question, like “who is the death penalty for?” and “does architecture shape punishment?”

The project, spearheaded by the New School in New York, asked students to examine the origins, development and future of incarceration in the United States, which jails people at the highest rate in the world.

Roughly 500 students from 17 states explored a relevant question about the incarcerated population in each of their communities culminating in this exhibit, which started traveling in in the summer of 2016. The students at UM coupled their course with a service-learning component where they visited Krome detention center to talk to detainees about their experiences there.

“A lot of times they told us about their story, how they ended up at Krome, they told us about their families,” said Kristi Brownlee, who is a Senior and was one of the University of Miami (UM) students who explored the question: “Processing Center or Prison?”

“We were just there to listen and I feel like going in, we were like really nervous, but when we got there, all they just wanted were like just a pair of ears,” said Brownlee, who along with her class and students from other universities blogged about their research. 

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
The panel UM students contributed to the exhibit.

One of the things that the students at UM explored was the history of Krome and how the demographics have changed over the years: from a co-ed detention facility to male and from predominantly Haitian immigrants to a much more diverse group of immigrants.

“I think that the goal of the exhibit is to ask new and challenging questions regarding incarceration and to look at the different forms that mass incarceration takes in the U.S.” said Carolina Villalba, who taught the UM class.

Villalba is a lecturer in the Africana studies program and teaches courses on incarceration. But she said much of her work has centered around what is more traditionally though of as incarceration: criminal incarceration. But she says in working with the students researching Krome and overseeing that exchange, she found the parallels between immigrant detention at a processing center and criminal incarceration in a prison to be much closer than she thought.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Kristi Brownlee, left, and Carolina Villalba in front of the exhibit.

“I think that some of the commonalities between boing an immigrant detainee and a criminal detainee are pretty striking and they’re worth exploring further,” said Villalba.

The exhibition will be open by appointment through Friday. Afterwards, it will move on to University of Massachusetts Amherst.