What: "Stories from Prison: Honoring Ancestors," an exhibit of work by UNO students in Benjamin Weber's history class, "Policing and Prisons in Local and Global Perspectives"
Where: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, New Orleans
When: Saturday, Nov. 14, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m
One of the prisoners asked the students to place a bouquet of flowers and a Bingo chip on the rocks at Lafreniere Park in honor of his Bingo-loving Grandma Betty. Another requested balloons be released in memory of his girlfriend who died with brain cancer. Another simply asked that a dozen pink roses be placed at his mother’s grave site.
“She loved pink roses,” the man wrote in a note to a 17-student class at University of New Orleans.
Over the last several months, the students in Benjamin Weber’s class, “Policing and Prisons in Local and Global Perspectives,” have been collecting stories and postcards from inmates at Louisiana State Prison in Angola for a public history project called “Windows Through Walls: Angola Penitentiary Over Time.”
They’ve asked the prisoners—all from New Orleans—to tell them the stories of loved ones who died while they themselves remained incarcerated. And they asked the question: How would you like to commemorate them?
In response, the seven graduate students and 10 undergraduates have crisscrossed New Orleans performing requested rituals of remembrance to honor these inmates’ relatives and loved ones, people who died while the inmates were serving time, unable to pay their respects in person.
“What they’ve found is that behind that label ‘criminal’ are people with real lives and real families and real loss,” said Weber, a visiting scholar at the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO.
On Saturday, Nov. 14, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., the Ashé Cultural Arts Center will be highlighting the students’ work so far in a display called “Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors.” It will include a display of the inmates’ writings and photographs of the rituals as they were being performed. In addition, students from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts will be performing monologues based on the prisoners’ writings.
The project is part of the national Global Dialogues on Incarceration initiative funded by the New School for Social Research in New York. The work that comes out of this class will be included in a traveling exhibition on incarceration starting next year. The exhibit will travel to 20 cities across the country, stopping in New Orleans in April 2017. Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any other state, according to figures collected by the National Institute of Corrections.
In its final form, “Windows Through Walls: Angola Penitentiary Over Time” will include research on the history of the state penitentiary that includes voices of those incarcerated as well as the postcard and photographic exchanges between students and inmates.
Weber, the Midlo Center Visiting Scholar at UNO, said the personal exchanges between students and inmates have provided invaluable context and meaning for the overall public history project they are working on, one that will chronicle Angola’s storied past in images and more.
“They’ve been so profoundly moved,” Weber said.
The next step, he said, is to get community feedback, which the class hopes to solicit during Saturday’s event.