The Big Graph

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Philadelphia, PA

Over the past several years, programming at Eastern State Penitentiary has increasingly addressed contemporary corrections and the recent, truly historic changes in the United States criminal justice system. Unveiled to the public on May 9, 2014, The Big Graph is a new permanent installation. A massive infographic sculpture illustrating incarceration rates over 110 years, The Big Graph displays the changing racial makeup of the American prison population and other striking trends in recent U.S. corrections policies.

This 16-foot tall, 3,500-pound plate steel sculpture illustrates three sets of statistics, depending on the viewer’s position. From the south, The Big Graph illustrates the growth in U.S. incarceration rates between 1900 and 2010, with particular emphasis paid to the soaring rates from 1970 to 2010. From the north it shows the changing racial breakdown of the American prison population in 1970 and in 2010, illustrating that the historic growth in the prison population has been comprised mostly of Black and Latino prisoners. From the east, The Big Graph charts every nation in the world, both by rate of incarceration and by policies around capital punishment. Eastern State Penitentiary’s founders were committed to addressing the problems of prisons in their era, and the historic site carries this spirit forward in multiple ways, with The Big Graph dramatically announcing Eastern State’s expanded focus on contemporary corrections.

Staff members cultivated and sustained relationships with offenders and victims, activists and scholars, community organizers and corrections officers in the process of compiling this exhibit. They also incorporated a multitude of perspectives in the planning, writing, and installation. Four former prison inmates, including two who served time at Eastern State, participated in The Big Graph’s dedication and public unveiling.

The Big Graph is the first and only public visualization of American incarceration rates throughout the 1900s and into the 21st century. The Eastern State research team sifted through and analyzed innumerable historic and current records to track the profound shifts that have occurred in the American criminal justice system over the past century, transforming them into a meaningful exhibit that causes visitors to pause, reflect, and consider this difficult history.