Author Archives: custerk01

“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: