Kah Yangni, for Perfoming Statistics (Mark Strandquist)

The digital experience #NoKidsInPrison wasn’t originally meant to be an online project. Initially designed as an in-person traveling pop-up, the experience had to shift gears with the onset of the pandemic. Not long after, the creators discovered an unexpected benefit: being online allowed the project to reach wider audiences beyond communities who are aware of youth prisons and the need for their abolition. 

The result of collaboration among Performing Statistics, Columbia Justice Lab, and Youth First, #NoKidsInPrison draws inspiration from the youth advocates’ authored poem, Freedom Constellation. The poem begins with the line, “In the world without youth prisons, I walk down the street and I see kids being kids.” The experience presents viewers with up-close and personal stories shared by those who have been impacted by youth incarceration. The visual journey reflects what life is like for incarcerated youth and their families, explores how youth get funneled into the system, and imagines what life would look and feel like in the absence of youth prisons. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the exhibit ends with a handful of guides, resources, and calls to action that viewers can use to get involved. 

Throughout the experience, statistics and information culled from research conducted by Columbia Justice Lab and Youth First help viewers grasp the scope of youth incarceration and the history behind the criminalization of young people. According to March 2020 data from the Prison Policy Initiative, roughly 44,000 young people were incarcerated in youth facilities across the U.S. While the number of youth incarcerated plummeted by 24% early on in the pandemic, new data shows that these early releases fell largely to the benefit of white youth—with white youth being released at a rate 17% higher than their Black peers. As reported by The Marshall Project, such disparities have now resulted in youth facilities that are almost completely filled with young Black and brown people. 

The team at Performing Statistics, who helped lead on the project’s design, leaned on young people themselves as experts on the issue and creative directors on the project. Early in the pandemic, Kate DeCiccio, the cultural organizing strategist at Performing Statistics and a lead creative director for #NoKidsinPrison, and Mark Strandquist, creative director at Performing Statistics and another lead director for the project, hosted brainstorming sessions with youth organizers from cities all across the country. DeCiccio and Strandquist guided them through a storytelling process that transported them into a future without prisons and then encouraged them to reflect upon that future. Every young person featured in the #NoKidsinPrison experience is connected to a Youth First Initiative, RISE Youth, or Columbia Justice campaign. DeCiccio says many of these youths were based in Richmond, Virginia, and formerly incarcerated as well. 

“A real cornerstone of our work is consistently thinking about how the people who should be leading this movement are the young people who are featured in the artwork telling the stories,” said Kate DeCiccio, Cultural organizing strategist at Performing Statistics and a lead creative director for #NoKidsinPrison. “So the art is both modeling what leadership should look like as we’re building the world without prison, as well as being an articulation of what we want that world to look like and be like.”

Throughout #NoKidsInPrison, young people share their intimate knowledge and experiences with incarceration and its effects through recordings, artwork, and poetry about abolition. Centering the exhibit around their stories and creativity delivers far more impact than statistics alone could convey. From the very start, the experience places viewers inside a youth prison cell while audio recordings relay real life stories of formerly incarcerated youth, detailing what their day-to-day life is like, their dreams, and the strain that incarceration poses upon them. A following scene similarly places viewers in a visiting room where we hear about youth incarceration from a mother whose son is currently inside.  

“Every piece of art that you see—whether the 360 cell experience to audio pieces to beautiful hand spray painted that Kate worked with the young folks to create—every story was authored by a young person impacted by the juvenile justice system,” Strandquist said. “This movement needs to be and is strongest when it’s led by young folks impacted by the system and we really wanted the website to reflect their power, their vision, and their incredible work they’re doing.”

The experience exemplifies the work and mission of Performing Statistics, which uses different mediums of art—music videos, murals, and interactive installations—to push toward the abolition of youth incarceration. Founded eight years ago, the organization’s name itself seeks to call attention to how the juvenile justice system dehumanizes young people by “both literally turning them into numbers, into stats, and denying them of the things that young folks need to thrive and be healthy, and stay connected with their families,” explained Strandquist. 

Art, by contrast, can serve as a way to combat those depictions by reinforcing our mutual humanity and healing ourselves and our relationships. 

“It’s an incredible tool for sharing across differences and imagining a better future,” Strandquist said. “It’s just a rare space where we can dream of a world that’s more just, whole, thriving, healthy, and healing”

DeCiccio says the use of art in this way is not new, but rather has deep historical roots across movements for social justice. A part of Performing Statistics’ work in training youth on cultural organizing is educating them about the role of art in political and social movements. DeCiccio cites the artwork of Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, the current poetry and portraiture coming from young Palestinians committed to rendering images of what a Free Palestine would look like, as well as the huge role played by artists in the Movement for Black Lives as just a few examples that link. 

“The power to pull people together and to really create momentum has been steeped in the arts,” DeCiccio said. “Consistently, art has been the heartbeat of how people see themselves in activism.”

In addition to the digital experience, Performing Statistics also has physical installations that aim to engender the same interest and momentum around ending youth incarceration. In November 2020, the group worked with youth leaders from RISE Youth as well as teenage coders to create Freedom Constellations: Dreaming of A World Without Youth Prisons, a 44-foot long mural in Richmond featuring quotes from Freedom Constellations and massive portraits of the youth organizers themselves. The mural is deeply interactive with an augmented reality feature where people can listen to audio or view video accompaniments using their cell phones. Installed right across the street from the VCU police department, the mural aims to both be a site of political education for visitors as well as a constant reminder of the work needed to fill the gap between our current systems and an abolitionist future. Behind the scenes footage of how the mural came together is featured toward the end of the #NoKidsInPrison digital experience. 

This summer, Performing Statistics will also be unveiling two new 170-foot banners on the sides of Richmond City Hall with portraits of two youth organizers who are also featured in the digital experience. 

“When you hover your phone over these young folks, animations will play in the clouds above City Hall that dream of a world without youth prisons,” Strandquist said. “We’re not only excited to share and work with young folks to learn all these amazing ways to use their voice to see their power and to dream of a better future, but using all these different strategies for reaching as many people and strategic people as possible.”

Strandquist notes that while there’s no single method or “silver bullet” to end youth incarceration, using public art in this way not only captures the attention of everyday residents and visitors but it also challenges those in power to address the issues.  

As the country gradually opens back up and allows for in person events, Performing Statistics does plan on taking the #NoKidsinPrison experience on the road, hosting it in cities where youth organizers are currently running campaigns to end policing or close youth detention facilities. The #NoKidsInPrison digital version of the exhibit will however remain online until that future is realized. 

For Strandquist, “the hope is that it becomes obsolete very soon.” 

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.