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Marking Time

Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Nicole R. Fleetwood

ISBN 9780674919228

Publication date: 04/28/2020

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Smithsonian Book of the Year
A New York Review of Books “Best of 2020” Selection
A New York Times Best Art Book of the Year
An Art Newspaper Book of the Year

A powerful document of the inner lives and creative visions of men and women rendered invisible by America’s prison system.

More than two million people are currently behind bars in the United States. Incarceration not only separates the imprisoned from their families and communities; it also exposes them to shocking levels of deprivation and abuse and subjects them to the arbitrary cruelties of the criminal justice system. Yet, as Nicole Fleetwood reveals, America’s prisons are filled with art. Despite the isolation and degradation they experience, the incarcerated are driven to assert their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanizes them.

Based on interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, prison visits, and the author’s own family experiences with the penal system, Marking Time shows how the imprisoned turn ordinary objects into elaborate works of art. Working with meager supplies and in the harshest conditions—including solitary confinement—these artists find ways to resist the brutality and depravity that prisons engender. The impact of their art, Fleetwood observes, can be felt far beyond prison walls. Their bold works, many of which are being published for the first time in this volume, have opened new possibilities in American art.

As the movement to transform the country’s criminal justice system grows, art provides the imprisoned with a political voice. Their works testify to the economic and racial injustices that underpin American punishment and offer a new vision of freedom for the twenty-first century.


  • The beauty in these often painful images (like Muhammad al Ansi’s 2016 untitled painting of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned as his family sought refuge across the Mediterranean) powerfully reclaims the visual idea of what it means to be imprisoned. Fleetwood seeks to revise the mainstream media narrative…by letting us see the diverse array of ‘studio photos, handmade greeting cards, drawings and other pieces of art made by incarcerated people’ that offer a story we on the outside have never really heard.

    —New York Times Book Review


  • 2020, Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Awards
  • 2021, Winner of the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize
  • 2021, Joint winner of the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award
  • 2021, Winner of the Frank Jewett Mather Award
  • 2021, Winner of the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize


  • Nicole R. Fleetwood is Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. Her work on art and mass incarceration has been featured at the Aperture Foundation and the Zimmerli Museum of Art, and her exhibitions have been praised by the New York Times, The Nation, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker. She is the author of On Racial Icons and the prizewinning Troubling Vision.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 8 x 8 inches
  • Harvard University Press