August 22, 2019 | 89° F

'Incarceration' exhibit examines immigrant rights, poverty

Photo by Jordan Levy |

In FX’s Emmy-winning show "Atlanta," Earnest Marks, played by Donald Glover, makes a poignant statement about the cycle of poverty.Throughout the show Marks struggles to pay his monthly rent, often explaining his troubles to his friend Darius, who had set up a plan for long-term profit.

“See, I’m poor Darius, ok? And poor people don’t have time for investments, because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor, ok?” Marks said.

It’s a strikingly honest admission, one that not only holds true in 2018, but in American history as a whole. In the nation’s history, minorities have always been more inclined to find themselves in these cycles of poverty, due to lack of opportunity, racism and mass incarceration.

States of Incarceration, a national collaborative group studying mass incarceration and its effects, has made a stop in New Brunswick at Mabel Smith Douglass Library. The exhibit, which will run until Mar. 9, was curated in part by Rutgers—New Brunswick and Newark students. Stories from 17 different states were featured in all, with Rutgers unsurprisingly contributing to New Jersey-based stories.

The Rutgers—New Brunswick contribution centered around South Jersey frozen vegetable company Seabrook Farms and the tactics the company used to keep their workers subservient to them. 

Seabrook was once one of the premier vegetable providers in the country, and one of their most lucrative periods was during World War II, using relocated Japanese families suffering from the effects of the internment camp program. Seabrook employed these workers and housed them in the company town, but the workers weren’t paid enough to be able to move out of the town. While Seabrook could seem like a place to build a stable life, the lack of self determination provided to the workers made the situation an exploitative one.

Seabrook also employed German prisoners of war and Black migrant workers, with many of them being stuck in the paycheck to paycheck mentality that offered no upward economic mobility. Akin to Earnest Marks’s dilemma in "Atlanta", there was no way to amass long-term savings. Stories like these abound in America and the exhibit.

Upon walking into the library, the exhibit is in the main lobby, with a main stand displaying different stories. There were more stories along the wall, including interactive stations. For instance, a section about Rikers Island included a playlist of songs about prison, prisoners and their families. 

The exhibit also featured a timeline of American incarceration and immigrant detention spanning from 1860 to 2015. It covered different types of prisons throughout history, as well as the chain-gang system. The war on drugs was a huge component of the exhibit as a whole, and former presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were all highlighted for their impact on drug policy and sentencing.

One of the more personal aspects of the exhibit was a wall where students could anonymously write about how they feel about mass incarceration and immigrant civil rights. Posted on little tags, the notes from Rutgers students showed the student body’s many thoughts on these increasingly relevant topics.

One student voiced support for DACA-receiving peers at the University, while another criticized the for-profit private prison industry. Ex-convict voting rights was another point raised by a student and how ex-cons should be able to regain their constitutional right. A particularly gripping note was one of a student briefly telling of having been in police custody. These personal accounts, ideas and opinions helped localize the issues that were being covered.

The exhibit as a whole is an incisive look at the American tradition of mass incarceration, immigrant detention and cycles of poverty. The studies spanning the nation exemplified how the issues at hand were not individual problems, but instead instances of systematic problems. With engaging interactive videos and playlists, it also keeps visitors engaged in multiple media formats. The open wall for comment personalized the material covered, showing the student body’s perspective. 

A trip to the library is certainly a worthwhile investment of time, as States of Incarceration effectively educates and informs.

Jordan Levy

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