Final Residency Reflection: Caroline Henderson

The Shapiro Design Lab Residency was a truly immersive and communal academic experience. I applied for the residency with a project proposal connecting prison design and mental health, unprepared for the richness of learning and growing to follow. As the Shapiro Design Lab staff and residents began meeting on a weekly basis, we became more familiar with one another’s passions and talents, and our individual projects began to take new shapes and meanings that reflected the complex intersections of the group.

In addition to the unique energy that each staff member and resident contributed, the tools and technology that are available in the Lab also fostered project evolution and new creation. In its initial iteration, my project focused on recreating carceral spaces in the form of an exhibit for those in the U of M community to physically experience. However, after receiving access to the Perlstein Editing Room and spending hours learning the intricacies of InDesign, I became excited about how I could incorporate this type of design into my project, and exploring ways in which it could deepen my audience’s understanding of the ways in which design manipulates bodies and minds in prison. While not playing a direct role in my project, other tools like the 3D printers, sewing machine, media production equipment, and weekly co-learning workshops provided an inspiring space in which constant creation was occurring.

I spent the greater part of the past year reading about architecture and design concepts, having conversations with prison employees, people who are/were incarcerated and their families, prison abolition activists, and academics focused on criminal justice, design, and exhibit curation. I could not possibly convey in this blog how much I’ve learned through this process, but hopefully my installation in the final Design Lab exhibit begins to. Throughout the residency, I continuously grappled with how to organize and display the information gathered in an engaging and authentic way, that was also respectful and inclusive of the people who spend everyday in prison, and who experience the type of discipline and control through design that my project explores in very tangible and violent ways.

I was able to create focus groups in a local men’s facility, as well as with a nearby reentry program, and in collaboration with these volunteers, identified three design themes that were central to many of their experiences with mental health in prison: sanitation, observation, and security. Through these themes, I was able to incorporate some of the focus group members’ personal writing into the final exhibit, keeping their voices and experiences central to the consumption of the project, and then adding in images, music, films and reading materials that help place each theme into a theoretical context. In the final exhibit, this material was presented in three “mood boards” representing each theme, as well as a sort of digital syllabus for the project.

As I look to the future of this project and the research completed, I hope to create a larger, stand-alone exhibit that allows the audience to interact with the specified prison design themes in a variety of ways, including through a “prison architect” video game, an audio autoethnography of my time volunteering and working in prisons, an installation concerning security footage, and more. In conjunction, I am interested in becoming more involved with the Museum Studies program at U of M and exploring new, creative ways in which social science research can be shared and experienced.