Surya Gowda’s (12) Independent Study sheds light on mass incarceration through prison gallery

Eliza Poster and Katya Tolunsky

Peering through the grey bars which enclose the model jail cell pitched within Fisher Gallery, one gets a glimpse into the realities of prison life. On one side of the room, a timeline reveals the history of mass incarceration in America, detailing the legislation that permits the current imprisonment of 2.3 million people in the United States. Across the room, powerful paintings and poetry created by inmates adorn the walls.

Surya Gowda (12) opened “Prison Gallery” last week. The installation acts as the final presentation of her Independent Study (IS) on mass incarceration and rehabilitation through the arts.

Though many IS students choose to write papers for their final projects, Gowda wanted to create an art exhibit, a more visual experience for viewers.

“I wanted it to be something that onlookers could experience instead of read,” she said. “I knew that if it was an installation piece people could actually interact with it and absorb the work or absorb the information.”

“The reasoning behind the installation was to highlight the concerns and issues that go along with mass incarceration and prison population,” Independent Study Director Avram Schlesinger said.

“In prison populations the issue of mass incarnation is one that has a racist connotation,” Schlesinger said. There are more black men in American prisons then there are any other race or gender. This is a direct result of systematic racism,” he said.

Gowda and Visual Arts teachers Kim Do and Barry Mason built the prison cell over Spring Break. Do did most of the carpentry work and helped procure the supplies; however, the concept of the gallery was entirely envisioned by Gowda, Do said.

“The instillation was very well put together and incredibly impressive,” Elizabeth Chung (12), another student taking Independent Study, said.

The cell is six-by-eight feet, the average prison size for an American jail cell. Gowda also painted a bed and a toilet onto the floor of the cell in order to demonstrate the claustrophobia and discomfort actually experienced by prisoners, she said.

“I actually laid down on the bed to see if I could fit, and I couldn’t,” Joshua Tom (12), a member of Gowda’s class, said. “Just understanding that there are a lot of Americans going through this was really eye-opening.”

After choosing her IS topic last year, Gowda contacted Technical Support Staffer Sheryl Baker, who has worked with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) since 2016.

RTA is an organization which aims to develop the social and cognitive skills of incarcerated people through the arts in order for them to successfully reintegrate into society, according to the RTA website.

“For the most part, a lot of people in prison weren’t taught how to deal with their emotions,” Gowda said. “The arts give them an outlet to speak out about the injustices they face, the emotional trauma, or anything that’s going on in their head that they may not to be able to verbally express.”

Through “Prison Gallery,” Gowda aimed to raise awareness of injustice in the prison system and encourage visitors to empathize and challenge negative stereotypes about incarcerated people, she said.