Incarceration in Public

Julia Foulkes ’97PhD, UMass History

Why does the U.S. incarcerate more of its people than any other nation? Historians are just beginning to tackle this complex issue that has led to an explosion of prisons and people in them since the 1960s. (The latest issue of the Journal of American History brings together the most current research.) Public historians, however, have had little to say. With the exception of Eastern State Penitentiary, there have been few museums or public institutions that have delved into this controversial topic. Now an innovative practice-oriented consortium of 20 universities (including UMass!) is tackling it head on.

The Humanities Action Lab (HAL), headquartered at The New School in New York City, brings together public historians, activists, and scholars across the country to foster dialogue on contested social issues. The pilot exhibition was the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, which explored the 100-year history of the U.S. naval base that has been at the center of debate in the fight against terrorism. (UMass public history students worked on this exhibition, which appeared in Herter Gallery in the fall of 2013.)

Solobia Hutchins, Ruby King and Holly Richardson of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC) protest at the construction site of a new women's jail in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in 2006. Photo courtesy of the Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Solobia Hutchins, Ruby King and Holly Richardson of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC) protest at the construction site of a new women’s jail in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in 2006. Photo courtesy of the Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

HAL believes that a historical perspective on an enflamed contemporary issue can offer insight into the complexity of the problem and provide a platform for a discussion that may be less ensnared in ideological positions. So, with incarceration, approximately 300 students this fall at 20 universities will be researching a site or issue near their university that relates to incarceration. The UMass Amherst team is exploring women, gender and reproductive justice, including activism around these issues. UMass students then will be in conversation with an outside organization as well as the students at other universities to deliberate and decide how to present these issues to the wider public.

At The New School, Radhika Subramaniam and I will be leading students on an investigation of Rikers Island, the largest jail in the country and the center of a heated discussion in New York City about violence, mental health, solitary confinement, and the place of juveniles in our criminal justice system. (New York State is one of only two states – North Carolina is the other – that treats juveniles 16 years or older as adults.)

Aerial view of Rikers Island. Photo courtesy of Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Aerial view of Rikers Island. Photo courtesy of Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Follow the ongoing conversation on the HAL website and look for the exhibition and related events starting in Spring 2016. (The exhibition travels to Western Massachusetts in March 2017.) The national collaboration provides a rare training ground for public historians and also gives this UMass graduate an opportunity to connect back to UMass!

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