“Community Engagement” | Museums & Incarcerated Audiences

The first time I walked into the prison pre-release center I’ve been interning at for the past 3 months,  all the wonderful, big, beautiful ideas I had been talking about all summer in my Museum Education classes seemed to fly out the window. I learned quickly that there were all kinds of crimes represented in those walls- drug distribution, fraud, assault, theft, sexual abuse, embezzlement- even murder. The inmates were trying to find jobs, make money, reconnect with their families, access healthcare, get therapy, and find a place to live. The questions that kept circulating through my mind: WHAT am I doing here? What do museums have ANYTHING to do with this group and this life stage? How in the WORLD am I going to find a way to relate to them?

Here is how I started to try and answer those questions:

The current US population sits at 323.1 million. The current incarcerated US population is 2.3 million. That comes down to about 1 in 110 Americans. 


Most of our correctional facilities emphasize rehabilitation as a central function. Rehabilitation is defined as the act of restoring someone to health or normal life through training and therapy. Unfortunately, it does not always play out that way. 

According to the Crime Museum, “the basic idea of rehabilitation through imprisonment is that a person who has been incarcerated will never want to be sent back to prison after they have been set free. It is hoped that an inmate’s experiences while locked up will leave such a lasting impression that a former prisoner will do whatever it takes to avoid a second term. Unfortunately, research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not successfully rehabilitate most inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime almost immediately. Many argue that most prisoners will actually learn new and better ways to commit crimes while they are locked up with their fellow convicts. They can also make connections and become more deeply involved in the criminal world.” 

This is when I began to make a connection. Museums are some of the most unique public spaces that exist. They are safe-houses, meeting places, and learning centers. They foster connection, curiosity, understanding and healing. Maybe these could be places where rehabilitation happens.

In 2013, Rand Corporation conducted a study that showed that 43% of inmates who participated in educational programing were less likely to return to prison. This is the window of opportunity for museums! What better way to engage with an audience to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of those in their communities. Organizations such as Rehabilitation Through the Arts are already doing this. RTA’s mission is to “use the transformative power of the arts to develop social and cognitive skills that prisoners need for successful reintegration into the community. RTA also seeks to raise public awareness of the humanity behind prison walls.” Click here to see an example of what they do. 


Community engagement is a popular topic in museums these days, focusing on what areas of the community can be reached next. The numbers are staggering, and prove that the incarcerated population is a significant part of our communities. In what ways can museums lend themselves to this audience? I think, in a single word, education. Sing Sing Prison Museum is on its way towards addressing this question. Although still in the making, this museum believes in second chances. They see the importance of education, the development of interpersonal skills, and involvement in the arts as important factors in proper rehabilitation. They want this mission to be at the core of their services as they partner with organizations such as Hudson Link, to inspire and encourage education among the prison population.

Another example of a feasible program for this audience that would encourage some of the necessary components to rehabilitation would be for a museum to arrange a partnership with a local prison, potentially one that would allow for the families and prisoners to experience the museum together. This would invite in families that may not have ever visited a museum before while also exemplifying opportunities to engage with family, creating and developing meaningful relationships and memories with their children.  It would also allow this group a chance to approach education in a new and powerful way.

As I finish out the last weeks of my internship at the prison pre-release center, I notice that I have answers to most of my early questions. I am here as a representative of the museum community. I am here to meet and know people that are different, and then again, not so different from me. I am here to foster connection and conversation, and to invite curiosity. I am here to lend a new perspective on eduction and open doors. There is a great need for more museums to address this group. There is much opportunity and possibility to be had. 


Some Resources: 








5 thoughts on ““Community Engagement” | Museums & Incarcerated Audiences

  1. museumpeople

    I love your idea of museum visits for inmates and their families–what a wonderful way to provide enrichment for both the inmates and their children while creating a positive education experience that could support rehabilitation.


  2. christinashepard

    This is such an important audience to keep in mind while programming, particularly because of it’s affect on the community as a whole. It is so important for rehabilitation to help people become aware of their options for post-rehabilitation. I think museums are important in relation to this because they give opportunities for people to think about their future and what they are interesting in learning. They are also places where people can think about how they want to improve themselves and gain more empathy.


  3. minchihyun

    Thank you so much for your presentation about the incarcerated audiences! Museums need to expand educational programs targeting more broader perspectives and audiences. I thought it was really thoughtful and good insights that creating or providing family programs for incarcerated audiences so they can bring their children or family in museums to enjoy and learn about something they haven’t experienced before. I believe that museum programs can definitely make a positive impact on not only their lives but also museums’ perspectives of community engagement and approaches!! Thank you!


  4. Beckett Adelman

    I wish I hadn’t been sick on the day you presented! This is a topic near to my heart as I have a family member who was incarcerated (and released) before I was born. I always wonder what my life would have been like if my family member had never been released or was released much later, and I wonder what his life would be like as a newly-paroled person re-entering society today. Would he have opportunities to seek rehabilitation? Would he have the ability to get a job? Pursue his education? Would he be a vastly different person than he is today? If programs like those you list and propose were available to him, would they be helpful? I have to hope the answer to (most of) these questions is yes.
    Thank you so much for this presentation, and your commitment to the incarcerated population. Does my heart good ❤


  5. mawelker

    Museums give such potential for important, informal education. Plus, the nice things about some museum collections is that they can come to you! For incarcerated inmates that don’t have the ability to go out yet, traveling collections (or local museums) could always team up with the prison to create programs that brings the education and objects to them. It could be a great first step to introducing that population to the potential of museums.



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