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Eastern State Penitentiary wants to know how you really feel about mass incarceration

Retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation or incapacitation? April 4, 2016 Category: FeaturedMediumMethod
Museums are typically windows into the past. Eastern State Penitentiary wants to straddle the past and present by prompting visitors to think about what the prison system exists to accomplish.

But they’re not doing it with a post-visit pen-and-paper survey. The museum is doing it with a custom-made digital interactive — not exactly befitting of the prison’s spooky 19th-century corridors.

“We started putting together this exhibit about mass incarceration in 2014,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president at the museum. “We had a really great response from our visitors, but knew we wanted to go even deeper.”

Kelley said that while the museum tries to keep their programming “simple” and “low-tech” to match the prison’s look and feel, this particular exhibit begged for something modern. The low-tech prototypes — like putting ping-pong balls or poker chips into tubes — just weren’t going to scale the way the museum hoped.

A sketch of one of the first interactive protoypes.

A sketch of one of the first interactive protoypes. (Courtesy image)

So, they went with a digital interactive displayed on trusty iPad Pros instead, custom-built by local design firm Interactive Mechanics.

“When we first met with [Kelley], we talked through the different options. I remember seeing the sketches,” said Mike Tedeschi, creative director at Interactive Mechanics. “We talked through what it is this thing should accomplish, and a lot of it was us learning about the four rationales and understanding what the objectives were for the exhibit.”

The interactive asks users to choose between one of four rationales for incarceration:

  • Retribution — The “eye for an eye” philosophy that demands wrongs be balanced out by imprisonment.
  • Deterrence — The concept that the existence of the prison system will deter people from committing crimes.
  • Rehabilitation — The idea that the prison system will act as a correctional facility.
  • Incapacitation —Putting offenders away in a place where they cannot cause harm to the public.

“We’re collecting how people respond, how they rank things, and throwing that back at them at the end,” said Tedeschi. The survey, he said, will pose a question at the very end that guides [visitors] back into the physical exhibit.

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(Courtesy image)

In addition to the interactive exhibit, which opens at Eastern State Penitentiary on May 6, a digital version will be made available online for the general public’s participation.

“We’re pretty confident most of our visitors will say rehabilitation and American prisons aren’t doing enough of it,” Kelley said. “It’s almost impossible to find anyone who thinks [the current system] is efficient and effective.”

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