Civic Studio: Weird Research

Jacktown: The Prison That Built Jackson

Blake Matthews
Mounted in-camera collage series

Growing up in Jackson, MI I was only slightly aware of the history of how the city came to be, which turned out to have a terrible past. My research made me aware of the horrific events of Michigan’s first state prison, also known as Jacktown, which was in operation from 1839 to 1934. The prison became infamous for its medieval-like punishments, harsh solitary confinement, a strict code of silence, and poor living conditions. All of these made the prison a place not for rehabilitation, but to disempower and dehumanize people who were sent there.

Today, prisons remain the default option to keep communities “safe,” by separating violent people from the community.  However, due to systemic racism and racial biases these perceived “violent” people by the communities are primarily black men. Because they are the default solution, prisons across the United States remain overcrowded, making the goal to rehabilitate nearly impossible. This collage series acknowledges the events of the first state prison in Michigan, and compares its means of operation to that of prisons today.

Drawing from my semester of research, I created this series of four collages that were created from source images taken at the site of the former state prison. With the help of my family, I photographed these found images held in front of the prison building as it stands today, visually capturing Michigan’s first state prison in both its past and present states. 

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