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Ohio State professor curates ‘Beyond Guilt’ exhibition

National museum exhibit examines over-sentencing of incarcerated individuals

As she worked on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s “Beyond Guilt” exhibition, curator Jennifer Suchland came to understand multiple meanings for the title.

The first, said Suchland, also an associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University, is a legal interpretation. It refers to the lawyers, the judges and the parole boards, all of whom need to see beyond an individual’s guilt to ensure excessive punishment – which includes over-sentencing and over-punishment – does not occur.

The second refers to the individuals themselves, she said.

“This blew me away,” Suchland said. “Through their stories, I learned that folks also wrestled with how to see themselves beyond their guilty charge. And they have to reckon with a criminal legal system that has over-sentenced or over-punished them.” Jennifer Suchland

In 2019, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) launched Beyond Guilt, a statewide program that advocates for the over-sentenced and over-punished. It seeks early release for individuals who have served significant portions of their sentences and can demonstrate rehabilitation. It also elevates the stories of those impacted by excessive punishment to educate the public about this problem.

This fall, thanks to a partnership between OJPC, Ohio State, the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, Beyond Guilt is able to share the stories of six storytellers, the first released through the program, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The “Beyond Guilt” exhibition, on display through Nov. 27, features photographs taken by Cincinnati-based artist and activist Harriet Kaufman. Each photo is accompanied by quotations from the photographed individual taken from hours of dialogues performed by Suchland’s graduate assistant Jessica Tjiu, who said the experience was a remarkable one.

“Part of the experience was just to listen. I tried to really savor the moment, this intimate moment with someone I had met just that day,” she said. “I was very honored that these individuals were willing to share their stories with me.”

It was important to Tjiu and Suchland that the vignettes feature the full lives of the storytellers and not just the incarceration experience.”  “We don’t want to put their experiences as formerly incarcerated up on a pedestal,” Tjiu said. “I talked to them about how they see themselves, how they are making and remaking their own identity.”

Both women described the sense of intimacy they felt with the project collaborators. Suchland in particular worried about the ethical questions this raised for her work.

“You have to listen for what they want to share,” she said. “I can’t let my own sentimentality dictate what we choose to include. I strove for a balance of opening myself up and listening to what’s being said, not what I thought was most important.”

Letting those impacted by excessive punishment speak for themselves is key to the exhibition, Suchland said.

“Excessive punishment is a problem, and we are trying to communicate that to the public,” Suchland said. “But, it’s not just a problem. It is a lived experience, and that personal experience should be the voice leading social change.” 

Jessica Tjiu“Stories matter, multiple perspectives on an issue matter,” Tjiu said. “Does this exhibit dispel misconceptions people may have? For me, it’s all about listening and seeing people beyond their criminal record.”

Suchland and Tjiu are adamant that this exhibition could not have happened without relationships across multiple institutions.

“Mariame Kaba, she’s a famous activist, organizer, educator – her father told her once that everything worthwhile is done with other people. My engagement with this project is a materialization of that,” Suchland said.

Beyond that, it is through relationships that we can right the wrongs of over-sentencing, she said.

“If we’re not building relationships within and across communities, then the profound structural change we need is likely not going to happen.” 

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