Freedom & Captivity, an ambitious, statewide, coalition-based, public humanities project designed to help members of the public imagine a future without prisons and mass incarceration, launched on September 2 with the support and participation of formerly and currently incarcerated people, a distinguished advisory board, and over 50 collaborating organizations across the state. The project has been two years in the making.

ARRT! Abolition (with barbed wire), acrylic on canvas, 35″x78, 2021

“We are facing a reckoning in our country about our use of mass incarceration to manage social problems. We recognize the racism inherent to our criminal legal system, as well as the devastating impact of the ‘war on drugs’ on communities and families. It’s long past time to rethink our approach to addressing harm,” said Catherine Besteman, coordinator of the project and member of the advisory board.

The project’s vision statement speaks to the importance of this project: “Recognizing that mass incarceration is fueled by racism and profit-generating mechanisms that tear apart communities and families, the project offers opportunities for public engagement about imagining prison abolition and the redirection of resources toward community investments, the repair of racial and gender injustice, intergenerational trauma, and eldercare for the aging population in Maine’s prisons.”

The project continues through December and features events, workshops, a podcast series, art exhibitions, webinars, coursework, and production from a wide range of organizations and institutions. Freedom & Captivity questions the use of prisons and jails to manage social problems, and asks us to imagine how we might approach harm reparation, safety, security, and justice differently.

According to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan, research, and advocacy nonprofit organization, Maine has an incarceration rate of 328 people per 100,000 people (including those locked up in prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities) – a rate of incarceration higher than that of many democracies in the world. In 2018, Maine had 5,000 people locked up. In 2010, Black people in Maine were incarcerated at approximately six times the rate of white people; Hispanic people were incarcerated at approximately four times the rate of white people.

Over the past few decades, the number of people incarcerated pre-trial, the rate of incarceration of women, and the number of people arrested for drug-related offenses has grown. The number of Mainers in jail has increased 649% since 1970, and those in prison by 151% since 1983. To lock up so many people, Maine spent $186 million in 2018, an increase of 167% since 1985. This rate of increase is much higher than increases in other areas, such as education.

Students rehearse for a dance/theater piece, at San Quentin State Prison.

“It is my hope that the Freedom & Captivity project will humanize our incarcerated citizens, and that by recognizing them as valued members of our community, we will transform our system of justice from a system based on punishment and retribution to a system based on healing and restoration,” said Joseph Jackson of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, who serves on Freedom & Captivity’s advisory board.

A movement to close Long Creek Youth Development Center, the lone youth detention facility in Maine, along with the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on incarcerated people, have heightened the need for urgent public dialogue about abolitionist futures in Maine.

A full calendar of events, the “Art on Abolition” online exhibition, access to “The F&C Podcast,” documentary films, and photography projects, background materials, and action steps are available on the Freedom & Captivity website,
Freedom & Captivity is funded by Colby College, Creative Portland, The Crewe Foundation, Maine Humanities Council, Portland Media Center, Scholars Strategy Network, SPACE, and the University of New Hampshire Public Humanities Center.

Freedom & Captivity Partner Exhibitions
(* indicates exhibitions created specifically for Freedom & Captivity)

Colby College Museum of Art – “Bob Thompson: This House is Mine
Bringing together paintings and works on paper from almost 50 public and private collections across the United States, “This House Is Mine” centers Bob Thompson’s work within expansive art historical narratives and ongoing dialogues about the politics of representation, charting his enduring influence.
Mayflower Hill Drive, Waterville • Through January 9, 2022

*Emery Community Center – “sea/sky, blood, earth, you”
Tracing a relationship of kinship among caregivers, Returning Citizens, families, and reentry advocates, this multifaceted project aims to foster awareness of, and reform for, elderly and terminally-ill incarcerated individuals and Returning Citizens.
Academy Street (between Main and High streets), Farmington • November 1 – December 9, 2021
Opening Reception: November 4, 5 p.m.

*First Amendment Museum – “First Freedoms in Captivity”
Incarcerated Maine veterans have created art that explores their experiences with their First Amendment freedoms: the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.
184 State Street, Augusta • September 1 – December 31, 2021 • Opening reception: September 8, 5-7 p.m.

*Freedom & Captivity – “Art on Abolition”
What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like? This online multimedia exhibition is juried from a national open call for work responding to the prompt.
Public launch: September 2, 2021, 6:30 p.m., Fox Field, Kennedy Park, Portland
Public screening of films and media: October 3, 2021, 6:30 p.m., Congress Square Park, Portland

*Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art “Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panopticon”
This exhibit explores the ways in which our lives are being influenced and determined by visible and invisible actions of “watching over.” reflecting on the prevalence of surveillance in contemporary contexts as well as its historical antecedents.
522 Congress Street, Portland • October 1 – December 10, 2021 • Opening reception: October 1, 5-8 p.m.

Maine Historical Society – “Begin Again: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine”
“Begin Again” examines the roots of social justice topics and aims to stimulate civic engagement and foster dialogue among Mainers. The Black Lives Matter movement, political unrest, and COVID-19 converged into a societal crisis. Through a physical exhibition and a virtual program series, “Begin Again” explores Maine’s historic role in these crises, and the national dialogue on race and equity.
489 Congress Street, Portland • Through December 31, 2021

*Maine Historical Society – “Passing the Time: Artwork by WWII German Prisoners of War in Aroostook County”
In 1944, the U.S. Government established Camp Houlton, a prisoner-of-war (POW) internment camp for captured German soldiers during World War II. Many of the prisoners worked on local farms, planting and harvesting potatoes. Some created artwork and handicrafts they sold or gave to camp guards.
489 Congress Street, Portland • Through December 31, 2021

Maine Historical Society – “The Advent of Green Acre, a Bahá’í Center of Learning”
Sarah Jane Farmer established the Green Acre conferences in Eliot in 1894. Lecturers discussed peace, world religions, health, freedom, and social justice topics. A 1900 meeting in Palestine with Abdu’l-Bahá, the imprisoned leader of the Bahá’í Faith, changed Farmer’s life. Afterward, she established Green Acre, which became a Bahá’í Center of Learning that continues to operate today.
489 Congress Street, Portland • Through October 2, 2021

*Maine State Museum/ Maine State Library/ Maine State Archives
Website offers Freedom & Captivity digital packets of primary source materials for free use by teachers and homeschoolers in grades 3-12. The packets will be accompanied by an educational webinar for teachers.
Available early Fall 2021

Oak Institute for Human Rights, Colby College – “States of Incarceration”
Founded by the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University, “States of Incarceration” is a collaborative project to create an archive of incarceration for every state.
Diamond Building Atrium, Colby College
September 2021 – January 2022

*Portland Public Library – “Art in Captivity: Inside Out”
Photographs from inside Maine’s Correctional Facilities that reveal the human necessity to make art.
5 Monument Square, Portland • September 15 – October 15 • Opening reception: October 3

*Railroad Square Cinema – “Stories of Incarceration: Portraits from the Penobscot County Jail Storytelling Project”
The Penobscot Jail Storytelling Project is a community-based, multidisciplinary project raising up the voices and priorities of people who have been jailed in Penobscot County, Maine. We are currently a team of 20 storytellers, interviewers, transcribers, artists, organizers, and advisors under the umbrella of community group No Penobscot County Jail Expansion.
17 Railroad Square, Waterville
September 13 – October 18, 202

*SPACE – “What Rhymes with Freedom?: Visions of Decarceration”
SPACE is pleased to present the exhibition “What Rhymes with Freedom?” highlighting work that explores alternative futurisms, liberatory archives, and artist activism as part of a deliberate world-building against police states, incarceration, immigrant detention centers, and global political prisoners.
534-538 Congress Street, Portland
September 10 – October 30, 2021

*Ticonic Gallery – “Art Inside”
People on the inside make art in all kinds of ways. Most people on the outside do not have the opportunity to view the art made by incarcerated people that is displayed in cells, offices, recreational, art rooms, and other spaces inside prisons. In this exhibition, four Maine-based photographers showcase artwork inside Maine’s five prison facilities, images that resist the isolating and dehumanizing dimensions of punitive confinement.
10 Water Street #106, Waterville
September 13 – October 30, 2021

*UMVA Gallery – “Freedom and Captivity: Maine Voices Beyond Prison Walls”
Residents and former residents of incarceration facilities express their lives in the art they create. The work defies stereotypes and emphasizes that we are all more than the worst act we have committed. We are whole people with loves and losses, skills, talents, ideas and gifts…and a longing to be free.
516 Congress Street, Portland • September 3 – October 29, 2021 • Opening reception: September 3, 5-8 p.m.

*University of New England Art Gallery – “Home Fires”
“Home Fires” presents the work of artists who have experienced incarceration in their immediate or distant family, or who use this concept as a structural theme in their work, to shine a light on what incarceration can mean for those of us who have stayed at home
716 Stevens Ave, Portland • October 22 – January 23
Opening reception: October 22