Important Houston Artists Create Mobile Billboards to Advocate for Prison Reform

Important Houston Artists Create Mobile Billboards to Advocate for Prison Reform

Mel Chin's 'Actual Size' billboard

IN A TIME when our nation’s politics seem hopelessly divisive, it may be surprising to learn that prison reform — including improving conditions inside prisons and enacting viable alternatives to incarceration — is a bipartisan issue. And it’s one that hits home for Houstonians.


The United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Texas is home to the largest prison population in the country, with Houston’s Harris County jail holding approximately 8,000 people on any given day — the majority of whom are legally innocent, unable to pay the cost of bail, and stuck inside awaiting trial. Activists and lawmakers both red and blue have expressed alarm about the abuse of human rights inside of prisons, as well as the inordinate amount of state and federal spending required to keep prisons staffed as the number of people incarcerated post-pandemic increases.

Trenton Doyle Hancock's billboard

Billboard by McKenna Gessner

On Nov. 4, the non-profit arts organization Art At A Time Like This will launch 8x5 Houston, a public art endeavor designed to bring attention to prison reform by displaying commissioned artworks by 10 artists on billboards and mobile billboard trucks throughout the city. (Eight feet by five feet is the size of the average prison cell.) The participating Houston-based artists include Mel Chin, McKenna Gessner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Chandrika Metivier. Faylita Hicks, Monti Hill, Kill Joy, Jared Owens, Jenny Polak, and El Rebo also contributed to the project.

To provide an outlet for community dialogue about prison reform, 8x5 Houston will hold a panel discussion at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on Nov. 4 at 2pm, moderated by HMAAC’s chief curator Christopher Blay. The speakers include Faylita Hicks; Houston artist Ronald Lewellyn Jones; Harris County Project Attorney at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity Jay Jenkins; and Houston-born actor and activist Kendrick Sampson, who starred in the HBO series Insecure and collaborated with JusticeLA to create a public service announcement about the health of inmates in Los Angeles County jails during the Covid-19 pandemic.

8x5 Houston will be on view on a billboard near you through Nov. 30.

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