people looking at touch screen
Interactive Exhibit

Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Prison Today Digital Interactives – Eastern State Penitentiary from Interactive Mechanics on Vimeo.

Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum in the ruins of one of America’s oldest prisons. Their critically-acclaimed exhibit Prisons Today presents current issues within the justice and corrections system. As part of the exhibit design process, we developed two digital interactives displayed on iPad Pros using HTML5 and JavaScript.


Eastern State initially wanted a low-tech exhibit to blend with the current museum experience. They worked with Metcalfe Architecture & Design to explore physical and mechanical interactives, but when they couldn’t find a way to show visitors how their responses compared to others’ in real time, they decided to bring in a digital component. Since this was the museum’s first digital project, we made education a core part of our work, from what works best on screens, to what each step in our process meant.

Eastern State Penitentiary Prisons Today What are Prisons For Interactive Screen


Eastern State’s goal for the interactives was to teach people about the four rationales for the prison system (retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation), and to get them to think critically about these reasons. We helped them translate this goal into digital experiences by guiding content development, presenting options for interface and experience design, and making technical suggestions that fit their budget and physical space.

What Are Prisons For asks visitors to rank these four official rationales for the prison system, and then to consider whether prisons exist for other unspoken reasons, such as profit motives, racial/political control, or hiding addiction and poverty. Visitors see how their responses compare to other visitors’, and are prompted to think about prison system priorities as they continue through the exhibit.

Before leaving, visitors reflect on their feelings and experiences in Postcards to Your Future Self. This interactive generates digital reminder postcards based on their responses and interests, and these are are automatically emailed to visitors two months, one year, and three years after they leave the exhibit. Eastern State can use these postcards to share involvement opportunities and policy updates to keep visitors engaged beyond the museum walls.

Eastern State Penitentiary Prisons Today Postcards Interactive Screen


Since this is a permanent exhibit, it was important to us and to Eastern State that the interactives continue to run successfully over time. We implemented Google Analytics custom event tracking so that we can understand how visitors are using the interactives, with metrics like time spent on each interactive and the number of pages viewed.

These data allow us to identify and improve potential trouble points where visitors walk away, as well as to support Eastern State’s marketing and reporting efforts. We learned that the interactives generated over 6,000 responses in the first two months, and over 1,000 digital postcards have been written and sent to visitors.