The designation “citizen” is a powerful tool: both to confer a range of rights to certain individuals of a particular nation state, and also to exclude or dehumanize because of where one is born or their carceral status. In this way, the framework of U.S. citizenship functions to both grant rights and exclude them. Jelani Cobb suggests the idea of “contingent citizenship” when thinking about how Black and Brown people experience the law. Alicia Garza also refers to the tenuousness of citizenship for black folks, saying that citizenship is conditional: “This is the harsh reality for Black people in America today. That we are expected to participate in democracy while receiving conditional citizenship in return.”
For people in prison, citizenship rights are suspended: the site of the prison becomes a territory of exception. When a person is awaiting trial for a criminal charge (even if a person can post bail), full citizenship rights are limited and monitored by “pre-trial services,” which can include curfews, drug tests, and more. After completing a prison sentence, and even after parole, people are excluded from housing options, job opportunities, and access to higher education based solely on the conviction for which they served time. Today, 6.1 million people cannot vote—a core right of citizenship—due to past convictions.
In 2019, artists William Estrada and Aaron Hughes led print workshops with incarcerated artists to explore ideas of outsider, citizen, immigrant, and other. The classes made prints based on statements; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; figures of ideal citizens and a series of flags. This built the groundwork for a 2020 project entitled “The 51st (Free) State” and a book called Carving Out Rights.
2019, Contingent Citizen, Uri Eichen Gallery, Chicago
(Wolf) Alan Christensen