A Great Injustice

Exploring American Incarceration

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
— Fyodor Dostoevsky

(A Great Injustice is a synthesis of art and long form data journalism. Accompanying this article is an installation that lets the readers experience the story in a new way. At the installation, the audience is encouraged to pick up, explore, examine, and document what they are learning about our prison system. The installation and article debuted at Autodesk’s Artist in Residence show at Pier 9, San Francisco, on May 20th and 21st. All pictures here are from that exhibit.)


There are many ways to get caught up in the gears of American justice, but the easiest is to be poor, black, mentally ill, or any combination thereof. We live in a society of vast and accelerating inequality and little to no social services. For many people born on the wrong end of the American dream, the brush with the law, the arrest, and the inevitable charges start a process they may never escape.

Fighting charges can take years of life, millions of dollars, and a rare resiliency in the face of an adversarial system designed to destroy you. Prosecutors and DAs use the threat of piling on additional charges and harsh mandatory minimums to force people to give in.

As a result, around 96% of defendants accept plea bargains. They go to prison without ever being proven guilty in a court of law. For the disproportionately poor and often black and latino arrestees, the constitutional right to a fair trial is a mocking fiction. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in 2012, “it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial… If there is no trial, there can be no fair trial.”

Even the government admits that up to 8% of those pleading are likely to be completely innocent. That’s at least 176,000 souls trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Given the common practice of misapplying charges to edge cases of the law, and the harshness of sentences even in situations where no one got hurt, the number of lost souls ripped from their lives and fed into this terrible machine are undoubtedly much higher.

Political Money and Wasted Lives

America has 4.4% of the global population, but over 22% of the prison population.

We also have longer sentences than most of the world. This may be influenced by the fact that incarceration is a profit center for the flourishing private prison industry. The two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, have spent $10 million in campaign contributions and $25 million in lobbying. At least some of this money has gone to support laws like California’s Three Strikes Law and Arizona’s immigrant detention policy.

In a report to investors in 2014, CCA wrote that “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”

Private prisons often require an occupancy rate as a contract condition with states, making policies like Stop and Frisk necessary to fill obligatory cells.

A single-piece institutional toilet.

Mandatory Minimums

In the 1980s, to take the possibility of leniency away from judges, legislators created mandatory minimum sentences tied to specific offenses. As a result, first time offenders and people caught up in situations the laws weren’t created for can face decades in prison merely because they believe they are innocent of any wrong-doing and won’t take the plea deals offered to them. Take the case of Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot while her ex-boyfriend was attacking her, threatening to kill her. Though no one was harmed, she was convicted of aggravated assault and given the minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. After managing to get a retrial, the prosecutor threatened to seek 60 years total on additional charges. Alexander pled for a three year sentence, and now remains on house arrest with her children.

“I was four years old when my dad went away, and my younger brother was two years old. He was convicted for trafficking in cocaine and sentenced to 15 years in prison. I began to cry, but even then I remember questioning my tears; what does it mean to be in prison? …at that age, I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew I wouldn’t be seeing any more of my dad. My father left my mom alone to raise seven children, which added a financial strain to the emotional distress.”
- Ifetayo Harvey

A slice of a prison no-contact visitor’s center

Hard Time

It isn’t just the prisoner who serves time. Families and communities suffer along with them. Right now, 2.3 million children have a parent taken out of their lives by the prison system. These kids deal with life disruptions, changing homes and schools. Their problems can be compounded by a “Conspiracy of Silence” between schools, churches, and neighborhoods.

Children are often lied to about what’s going on, sometimes denied visitation, and live with shame about their imprisoned family member. They learn to lie about what’s happening to them. They often withdraw from life, and drop out of school. A child with a dad in prison has no better than a 15% chance to graduate from college, with a mom imprisoned, a 2% chance. Many of these children experience the symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but there is no organized outreach to take care of them.

In many places, the average women’s sentenced time of 18 months is enough separation time to terminate parental rights, and lacking in community support, some of these mothers will never be reunited with their children.


“It was hard to go to (visit). It was stressful. I cried a lot. I had nightmares about being in prison all the time.”
- Zoe Willmott was 4 when she lost her mom to the prison system.

A scene from solitary confinement, and the only part of the installation that can’t be directly interacted with.

The SHU

The SHU or Security Housing Unit is the name of the cells which are used for solitary confinement. In Solitary, the mind eats itself. Solitary confinement is considered torture by the United Nations, and much of the global medical community. The effects of a stay in solitary can be lifelong, and can result in psychosis, self-harm, or even suicide. Each prison has their own rules for who goes into the SHU and for how long — and even those rules are often ignored.

In California, inmates can be restricted to the SHU for having a tattoo prison staff doesn’t like, or reading the wrong book. Untreated mental illness can also land people in the SHU.

A prisoner experiencing a clinical episode of Bipolar or Schizophrenia is likely to find themselves in Solitary confinement as “punishment” for behavior they can’t control. There is no oversight on how the SHU is used, and no limits on how long a prisoner can remain in isolation.

Right now, around 80,000 people in America are in solitary confinement. Some have been locked in these modern oubliettes for decades, forgotten about by the outside world.

Some are as young as 14.

Homelessness is often the fate of released prisoners trying to make a new start, especially the mentally ill.

A Humanity Discarded

Re-entering society after serving time can be nearly impossible. Felons can be denied jobs and housing. Sometimes they can’t vote, or receive food assistance or educational benefits. Without support, people are often released from prison to live on the streets. Though the rate of homelessness hasn’t been studied nationally, one California study found the parolee rate of homelessness to be as high as 50% .

Take the case of Lisa Michelle Rappa, who first entered prison at 19. She shuttled between incarceration and homeless shelters until 2009, when she was finally able to break the cycle, getting a place to live with to Section 8 HUD assistance. “This is a new life for me,” said Rappa. “I don’t have my apartment since I was 19, I’m 42 now.”

Nearly 6 million people, or 2.5% of the voting age public, can’t vote due to felony disenfranchisement. This is often true even if their brush with the law was a lifetime ago. The denial of voting rights disproportionately hits black citizens of Southern states. While nearly 8% of adult black men are denied the vote, their concentration in states like Florida and Virginia is the latest reinvention of America’s odious tradition of Jim Crow. But it doesn’t stop with Jim Crow: prisons are counted for congressional districting even when their inmates can’t vote, reinventing the 21st century version of the 3/5th compromise.

Between politicians, corporations, out-of-control enforcement, and a disengaged public that only hears “tough on crime” and doesn’t bother with the terrible details, we have let this system go out of control. Only a public movement for reform can reclaim the American soul from its role as the maker of Hells.

Additional Information


A Great Injustice was created By Quinn Norton, with Wendy Russell and Gail

With thanks to Noah Weinstein, Vanessa Sigurdson, the AiR team and shop staff, my fellow artists, Instructables, and Autodesk for supporting this project.

A special thank you goes to Marcy Thompson, who kept me going when I wasn’t sure.