Captive State: Louisiana and the Making of Mass Incarceration

On view July 19, 2024–January 19, 2025
Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
520 Royal Street, Tricentennial Wing, 2nd and 3rd Floors
Free admission


About the Exhibition

Louisiana’s present-day distinction as the world’s incarceration capital is rooted in three centuries of history. Throughout this history, people in power have used systems of enslavement and incarceration to hold others captive for punishment, control, and exploitation. Black Louisianians have suffered disproportionately under these systems. Through historical objects, textual interpretation, multimedia, and data visualization, Captive State investigates these throughlines and arrives at an irrefutable truth: that the institutions of slavery and mass incarceration are historically linked.

Captive State tells this story in two parts. The first part outlines how Louisiana’s colonial and early American governments created race-based systems of oppression through legislation, policing, imprisonment, and violence that matured as New Orleans became the hub of the domestic slave trade. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime, permitted Louisiana to evolve its methods of racial control and embrace convict leasing and forced prison labor, particularly at a plantation known as Angola.

The second part of the exhibition traces how the Louisiana Constitution of 1898, written to maintain white supremacy, enabled an era of mass incarceration in the 20th and 21st centuries. Through nonunanimous jury verdicts and “tough on crime” legislation,  incarceration rates skyrocketed, with far-reaching impacts. Among them are the growing number of people serving life sentences without parole. This has resulted in an aging state prison population, making the work of incarcerated volunteers in the hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary essential. Lori Waselchuk photographed this program in Grace Before Dying, displayed in the mezzanine of the Tricentennial Wing. The exhibition concludes with a reflection question, reading recommendations, and information on ways to get involved on issues related to mass incarceration.


Captive State: Louisiana and the Making of Mass Incarceration was made with the generous support and contributions of several individuals and organizations. HNOC staff are grateful for the many hours of conversation, tours, and advice from people who have been impacted by incarceration and those whose work touches the history and current operations of the criminal legal system. Among these important contributions, HNOC would like to specifically acknowledge the dedicated work of the Captive State Advisory Board:

Additional thanks to: Promise of Justice Initiative, Visiting Room Project, Vera Institute of Justice, the family of Shawn Duncan, the family of Cayne Miceli, Sara Gozalo, Curtis Davis, Alvin Reliford, Engrid Hamilton, Beasy Taylor, Derrick Fruga, Steven Garner, Kenneth Woodburn, Theortric Givens, Steven Garner, Daryl Waters, Marcus Kondkar, Annie Nisenson, Sophie Cull, Marianne Fisher-Giorlando, Mary Howell, Dominique Dollenmayer, Christian Henrichson, Lee Wyma, Laura Blereau, Sarah Pharaon, Sean Kelley, Lauren Zalut, and Susie Penman.

Captive State HNOC curatorial team:

  • Eric Seiferth, HNOC Curator/Historian, exhibition curator
  • Kevin T. Harrell, HNOC Collections Cataloger, exhibition curator
  • Katherine Jolliff Dunn, HNOC Curatorial Cataloger, exhibition curatorial assistant

Header images:

Left: Angola Hoers; 1938; gelatin silver print by Fonville Winans; HNOC, 2018.0513.9
Right: Vue d’une Rue du Faubourg Ste. Marie, Nelle. Orléans (Louisiane); ca. 1821; lithograph with watercolor by Felix Archille de Beaupoil Saint-Aulaire, artist; P. Langlume, lithographer; The L. Kemper and Leila Moore Williams Founders Collection at HNOC, 1937.2.3 



Captive State: Louisiana and the Making of Mass Incarceration is made possible with the generous support of Media Partner WWL-TV.


Related Programs

Piecing it Together: A Captive State Tour and Conversation

August 1, 2024–January 18, 2025
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10–­11:30 a.m.
HNOC welcome center, 520 Royal Street
Suggested price $5; free for members

Tours begin August 1, 2024

This 90-minute tour explores the threads connecting slavery to modern mass incarceration in Louisiana. Along the way, visitors are invited into a conversation about how incarceration impacts our communities today. The tour starts promptly at 10 a.m., and latecomers will not be able to join. We suggest arriving 5–10 minutes early.