In the System

Mt. Pleasant, MI

“In the System” was a Graphic Design capstone exhibition developed over a six-month period by 18 Central Michigan University Graphic Design seniors in 2016-2017. What started out as an investigation into an increasingly well-documented yet still generally avoided research topic became a community education project with a direct interface to the prison population.

  1. Goals
    To critique the American Penal System, to make public to our community some of this system’s more egregious problems, to better understand prison from the prison population’s point of view, to give that population a voice.
  2. Service Learning & Community Engagement Pedagogy
    “In the System” involved weeks of viewing, reading, and discussing research about its central topic. Through visits to local and state prison facilities, it taught awareness of both the difficulties and limitations of being incarcerated. A letter-writing campaign to currently incarcerated citizens resulted in their responses being utilized in a series of portraits of the respondents, humanizing what is otherwise a dehumanizing experience.
  3. Student/Participant Experience
    “In the system” enabled students to reevaluate their attitudes toward the prison population while better understanding the recent history of the penal system. The project encouraged students to reconsider a designer’s possible roles in society as a communicator and social catalyst. Using holistic thinking, one student built a timeline of 60 years of prison construction out of cinder blocks, the very material of prison construction. Another created an 8’x16’ wall map of all the prison facilities in America.
  4. Community Experience
    Since “In the System” was an extremely popular and well-attended university exhibition, with extensive local and regional media coverage including television, the project built more than capacity. Many of the over 900 visitors to the two-week exhibit logged in and left their thumbprint in the register, as they might do when entering a prison. The exhibit communicated with a broad segment of Lower Michigan. We know this because media coverage meant the project also encountered conservative backlash on social media. This was not unexpected, but the viciousness of such responses can be intense.
  5. Faculty/Staff Experience
    There is no doubt that this project, part of the ART 472 Graphic Design Capstone, resulted in the faculty member’s professional development, and contributed to the personal and social growth of students. Cross-disciplinary collaboration took place through the faculty experts in architecture and public relations— professionals with extensive prison study experience— who helped mentor students.
  6. Institutional Priority
    “In the System” advanced Central Michigan University’s core mission to interact with its community and extend its service-learning student experiences. In 2018 the university purchased the Prison Portrait series for its Art On Campus collection, notifying the participating prison inmates.
  7. Future Goals
    I don’t know as I can limit the future to three goals. I will teach this course again in 2021. It will be my continuing intention to expose students to socially relevant topics in both their research and professional practice. Each group is unique, and each learning experience evolves toward its own original end. CMU students in general are often focused on a commercial career, and I do everything possible to offer them alternatives. Our future community partners have yet to be determined