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On View

The Writing on the Wall

Sep. 16, 2022 - July 9, 2023

Santa Cruz MAH

705 Front St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
March 10, 2023 - July 9, 2023
Thursday - Sunday, 12-6 PM

Davenport Jail

70 Center St
Davenport, CA 95017
June 3, 2023 - July 8, 2023

Two women stand in an exhibit consisting of writings plastered to the walls and floor.

The Writing on the Wall, a collaboration between Hank Willis Thomas and Dr. Baz Dreisinger, is a traveling exhibition of essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams, and notes written by individuals from around the world experiencing incarceration.

Emulating a prison cell, The Writing on the Wall at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) recreates these largely unseen spaces in a public sphere. The installation’s design references the palimpsest-like writing on the walls of prison cells and layers these onto opaque and transparent acrylic panels arranged in modules. The arrangement of the installation is based on measurements of cell blocks, providing a spatial context for visitors and immersing them in the words of the incarcerated. The writings were collected, with the authors’ permission, by Dr. Dreisinger during her years teaching in US and international prisons. As a presentation of the crisis of global criminal justice systems, these letters visually convey the narratives, thoughts, and emotions of the people behind bars.

In conjunction with The Writing on the Wall exhibition at the MAH, a version of the project can also be seen at the Davenport Jail, a decommissioned jailhouse and historic landmark built in 1914. The Davenport Jail is temporarily closed due to storm damage, but will reopen on June 3, 2023.

Later this spring, the work will be presented guerilla-style as a series of pop-up, outdoor projections on local justice buildings, including the structure immediately next to the MAH in Abbott Square that served as the Santa Cruz County Jail and Courthouse from 1937 to 1986.

The Writing on the Wall is organized by Rachel Nelson and Gina Dent in partnership with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History as part of Visualizing Abolition, a public scholarship initiative at UC Santa Cruz designed to shift the social attachment to prisons through art and education. Funding for Visualizing Abolition is provided by the Mellon Foundation.

About (Tab to skip section.)
An exhibit, the

A nationwide project

The project is an initiative of the Incarceration Nations Network and has previously been exhibited in Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, and New York City, including as part of the High Line Network Joint Art Initiative.

Historical Violence and the Davenport Jail (Tab to skip section.)

Historical Violence and the Davenport Jail

by Luke A. Fidler


A black man in a long-sleeved black shirt rests his head on his right hand.

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture.

A woman with black hair swept into a bun rests her hand on her left hand.

Dr. Baz Dreisinger

Dr. Baz Dreisinger is the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the founder and executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network. Founded in 2018, the Incarceration Nations Network is a global network that fosters and elevates innovative justice work worldwide. Dr. Dreisinger is also the author of the acclaimed book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World and a 2018 Global Fulbright Scholar.