American society often dehumanizes incarcerated people, sometimes to the point where prisoners are no longer seen as human. Although they do not have the same freedoms that many others enjoy, the distinction made by many can be harmful and undeserved. Concord Academy’s Innocence Project recognized this idea and launched an art project, referred to as the “Innocence Project Portraits,” in order to help combat this mindset that causes oftentimes undeserved and unnecessary harm to many incarcerated people.
The Innocence Project, a club that focuses on injustices in the American judicial system, first surfaced in the CA community to advocate for further investigation for Rodney Reed after he was sentenced to death and refused DNA testing by the American courts in the fall of 2019. Since then, the club has continued to advocate for human rights in similar fields.
Its most recent venture, the Innocence Project Portraits is meant to emphasize prisoners’ humanity by contrasting their emotions with students’ in order to find common ground. The co-heads encouraged students to draft self-portraits that illustrate how one feels perceived by others and how one views oneself. They gave prisoners in local Concord prisons the same prompt. Although the project is still in progress, the co-heads and artists are excited about it.
Carter Wood ’22, a co-head of the club, described how the club decided upon the project. “We thought that art would be a really powerful outlet for students to engage in self-expression and prisoners to share their stories. We thought this culmination of wildly different perspectives all coming together under one artistic goal could create a really powerful statement.”
The goal of the portraits is to create common ground and foster a sense of empathy and understanding of incarcerated peoples’ humanity. The portraits emphasize the wholeness of an individual. They provide prisoners with the opportunity to make a statement saying that although there is one way many perceive them, there is much more to each person. Although they have committed crimes and are being punished for them, that does not strip them of their personality, interests, and individuality.
The artwork will also showcase how many students can relate to this idea in different ways. Nearly everyone struggles to some extent with how they identify themselves and how others perceive them, although some people battle with this idea more. By emphasizing that there is more to a student or teacher than perhaps seen at first, the idea is more translatable to prisoners, encouraging empathy.
Although they have not finished collecting portrait submissions, the Innocence Project plans to host an art show, open to the public, to broadcast their message. There, they are hoping to collect donations to give to designated outreach programs, and the club is considering putting some of the portraits (with the artists’ permission, of course) up for sale to fundraise more for these programs.
“We both want to raise awareness of the importance of acknowledging the humanity of prisoners to establish that their crimes do not define them, and also raise money for programs that do outreach to prisoners and provide them with education and life skills that can be applied both in prison and once they get out,” Carter shared.