New Approaches to Carceral Studies

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: Crime and Violence; Legal and Constitutional; Race


In recent years, U.S. historians have devoted significant attention to prisons, policing, criminal law, and racialized mass incarceration. Long neglected by US historians, carceral state history is now one of the most vibrant subfields of US history. Interest has only increased following the summer rebellions and public debates of 2020, particularly around broad arguments for abolition and local campaigns to defund police. New scholarship has demonstrated that, contrary to popular portrayals that primarily blame conservatives, the carceral state was a bipartisan project that operates to uphold and strengthen racial capitalism. It has also revealed a vast network of local, state, and federal policymakers, as well as administrators and social scientists, who collaborated on this massive punitive state-building project that fundamentally transformed life in the contemporary US for all of us, but especially for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, who are disproportionately targeted and punished by carceral politics. The carceral state is undeniably a product of an enduring “antiblack punitive tradition,” as Elizabeth Hinton and DeAnza Cook have argued – but scholarship has revealed how this racial power has shifted, been challenged, and become more durable at different moments in US history. Building on this foundational work, emerging scholars from both within and outside of academic spaces are working to further develop and, at times, complicate this interpretation with studies of the importance of, for example: civil detention, minority police recruitment, true-crime culture, black liberalism, prisoner resistance, and fiscal limitations to carceral state-building. This lightning-round panel will introduce attendees to works-in-progress that explore these and many other emerging themes. Two of the field’s most influential historians, Elizabeth Hinton and Heather Ann Thompson, have agreed to co-chair this exciting panel, which will introduce and contextualize new scholarship while highlighting the innovative approaches of early-career researchers and writers in carceral studies.

Papers Presented

Legal Perversions: Creating and Contesting the Modern Sex Offender Regime

From the first laws allowing for the indefinite detention of accused “sexual psychopaths” in the 1930s to the sex offender registration and notification requirements of today, U.S. states and the national government have defined people accused of sexual crimes as a special category of offender—not insane but not fully rational either, suffering from a mental disorder that denies the capacity for self-control. This categorization has justified indefinite detention, medical experimentation, and post-sentence surveillance of people accused of sexual crimes. Many of these practices have been deemed civil rather than punitive, allowing the state to skirt various criminal law constraints on state power and forcing the accused and their lawyers to fight for even the most basic procedural or substantive protections. People accused of sexual crimes were thus early actors in the struggle for deinstitutionalization and against psychiatric abuses, preventative detention, sex panics, and the emerging carceral state. This paper discusses the legal battle against sexual psychopath laws in the mid-twentieth century, situating it as an important instance of resistance against the carceral state, and it argues for the importance of civil law to the construction of the modern carceral state.

Presented By
Corbin Page, University of Chicago

Making Sense of American Police Science in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Since the 1960s, Civil Rights struggles over local law enforcement problems have propelled the strategic employment of minority policemen and policewomen in America. My dissertation project examines the coinciding effects of minority police recruitment on rising public-private investments in urban police research and experimental crime control programs in major and mid-size municipalities nationwide. I argue that the selective incorporation of minority police agents and interagency police partners sparked the diffusion of “community-oriented” and “problem-oriented” police science across America. By scrutinizing the development and dissemination of popular proactive policing strategies, this study ultimately sheds light on an urgent historical and contemporary dilemma in the post-Civil Rights era: can local residents suffering from chronic violence and fear of future violence actually transform policing practices within their communities and elsewhere? If not, why? And if so, how?

Presented By
DeAnza Avonna Cook, Harvard University

The Puzzle and Peril of Prison Overcrowding in the Development of the Prison Nation

My dissertation uses Pennsylvania as a case study to examine the untold history of late-twentieth century state prison overcrowding and the politics that this crisis of carceral incapacity produced. Most scholars consider the 1970s through the 1990s as the apex of tough on crime politics, pointing to the advent of aggressive policing, tough sentencing laws, and skyrocketing incarceration rates as proof. Yet this era also featured a massive crisis of prison overcrowding in the state and local correctional systems where the majority of prisoners were and are still imprisoned. Far from a minor challenge for policymakers, I argue that state and local prison overcrowding threw the burgeoning project of mass incarceration into disarray by straining state and local budgets, wearing down facilities, and making overcrowded and abusive correctional institutions vulnerable to judicial review. Prison overcrowding also created openings for imprisoned people to resist and attempt to limit the carceral state’s growth, whether through direct actions inside or via prisoner litigation. I show how crime and penal bureaucrats at the state and local level had to actively struggle to overcome the legitimacy crisis and governance dilemma that prison overcrowding produced, suggesting a more contested and uncertain development of the prison nation than is commonly understood. Even during the zenith of tough on crime politics, state and local prison overcrowding laid bare the violence and inhumanity of incarceration and created space for imprisoned people and their allies to push for the consideration of alternative, non-carceral policy pathways.

Presented By
Charlotte E. Rosen, Northwestern University

The People’s War on Crime and Drugs

My dissertation, preliminarily titled, “The People’s War on Crime and Drugs,” explores how deindustrialization, the emergence of neoliberalism, and the rise of the American carceral state engendered new social formations in post-civil rights Black America. My work urges historians of crime and punishment to consider three interrelated social phenomena that are crucial yet understudied in our histories of the rise of mass incarceration and the saliency of law and order politics in the post-1970s period: (1) the formation of late twentieth century urban drug markets and the role of deindustrialization in rupturing postwar labor markets thus funneling young, unemployed men into the drug economy; (2) the existence of a “law and order consensus” (and thoroughly bipartisan) in local, state, and federal governments; and (3) the long history of community-police “partnerships” and the nuances of grassroots antidrug and anticrime activism.

Presented By
Kenneth Alyass, Harvard University

Rethinking Black Carceral Liberalism in the Post-Civil Rights Era

In this lightning round session, I will consider what black carceral politics in the post-civil rights era reveals about the evolution of black liberalism. In recent years, scholars have debated the roots of African American elected officials’ embrace of punitive anti-crime measures between the 1970s and 1990s. The most nuanced critiques have framed these decisions within the context of shrinking options on an increasingly punitive political landscape. However, black elected officials’ support for the expansion of police power and punitive sentencing in the post-civil rights era must also be understood within the tradition of black liberalism. Black liberalism, also a protean ideology, long-held within it punitive imperatives, most often expressed by black elites in their efforts to discipline the wayward black “masses”. Disciplined communities and individuals were understood as necessary not only for racial uplift but for black survival in an anti-black world. These punitive impulses existed in tension with the recognition of the violence of the carceral state. As African Americans began to enter the public sector, those disciplinary tendencies remained and stood alongside the desire to reform the most discriminatory and violent aspects of the state. The seeming contradictions of black liberalism in the post-civil rights era—how, for example, civil rights icons once assaulted by police could also demand more police and harsher sentencing—compel us to consider the implications of the public incorporation of longstanding practices of black discipline, once kept behind the veil.

Presented By
Danielle Lee Wiggins, Caltech

The Lived Practice of True Liberation – Fighting to Save the Lives of Incarcerated Black girls and women in the South!

Abolition is a life-saving practice. The severe, punitive, exploitative, and cruel nature of incarceration has affected Black southern communities since the end of the Civil War. This system, one that breeds over-policing, mass surveillance, and the systematic control over people’s personal self, is rooted in a system that not only criminalized Black bodies, but one that placed Black girls and women at the forefront of that criminalization. It is this system that continues to contribute to the brutality that incarcerated Black girls and women currently face within a system that seeks to punish their very existence, both inside and outside of the prison walls. In seeking systematic change while fighting for Black liberation, it is imperative, then, that scholars and activists alike pay just as much attention to the lived experiences of Black girls and women in the carceral state as they do incarcerated Black boys and men. For this reason, the history of incarcerated Black girls and women in the South, and more specifically those housed in the notorious Parchman Penal farm in the Mississippi Delta, speak to and illustrate just how unjust, domineering, and brutal the prison is to those held captive in this violent state sanctioned system. Moreover, it is in the shadows of the southern penitentiary, that Black girls and women have found themselves fighting within a society that often views their debasement, brutality, and exploitation at the hands of the carceral state, as justified due to their gender and race.

Presented By
Telisha Dionne Bailey, Colgate University

The Strangers Beside Us: A History of Fear, Fascination, and Spectacle Murder in Late Twentieth-Century America

In this lightning round panel, I am eager to discuss how sensational crimes during the last three decades of the twentieth century – from the serial killer craze to the OJ Simpson trial – produced collective action, shared knowledge, and a plethora of cultural material about homicide investigations, the criminal-legal system, forensic science, and the so-called “criminal mind.” In my book project, I reexamine a number of these infamous cases that took place in the state of California, showing how state actors like detectives and prosecutors reclaimed and retold these narratives to cover their own missteps and failures in the face of widespread public scrutiny. Through new entertainment networks and a burgeoning true crime industry, they aligned with crime victims and survivors to push a conservative victims’ rights agenda, helping to enshrine murder as a defining feature of the twentieth-century American experience.

Presented By
Alyssa Smith, Independent Scholar

Session Participants

Chair: Elizabeth Kai Hinton, Yale University
Elizabeth Hinton is Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Department of African American Studies at Yale, with a secondary appointment as Professor of Law at the Law School.

Hinton’s research focuses on the persistence of poverty, racial inequality, and urban violence in the 20th century United States. She is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on criminalization and policing.

In her book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press), Hinton examines the implementation of federal law enforcement programs beginning in the mid-1960s that transformed domestic social policies and laid the groundwork for the expansion of the U.S. prison system. In revealing the links between the rise of the American carceral state and earlier anti-poverty programs, Hinton presents Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs not as a sharp policy departure but rather as the full realization of a shift towards surveillance and confinement that began during the Johnson administration.

Before joining the Yale faculty, Hinton was a Professor in the Department History and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She spent two years as a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. A Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation Fellow, Hinton completed her Ph.D. in United States History from Columbia University in 2013.

Hinton’s articles and op-eds can be found in the pages of the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Review, The Nation, and Time. She also coedited The New Black History: Revisiting the Second Reconstruction (Palgrave Macmillan) with the late historian Manning Marable.

Chair: Heather Ann Thompson TWEHOUSE, University of Michigan
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson is a native Detroiter and historian on faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the departments of Afro-American and African Studies, History, and the Residential College.

Her recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, has been profiled on television and radio programs across the country, it just won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy, The Ridenhour Book Prize, the J. Willard Hurst Prize, and a book prize from the New York City Bar Association. The book was also named a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize in History, a finalist for the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association (winner announced May, 2017), and it was named on 14 Best Books of 2016 lists including those compiled by The New York Times, Newsweek, Kirkus Review, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Bloomberg, the Marshall Project, the Baltimore City Paper, Book Scroll, and the Christian Science Monitor. Additionally, Blood in the Water was named on the Best Human Rights Books of 2016 list, and received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Blood in the Water has also been optioned by TriStar Pictures and will be adapted for film by acclaimed screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Schrapnel.

Thompson has written extensively on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Atlantic, Salon, Dissent, NBC, New Labor Forum, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post, as well as for the top publications in her field. Her award-winning scholarly articles include: “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in the Postwar United States,” Journal of American History (December 2010) and “Rethinking Working Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards.” Labor: Studies in the Working Class History of the Americas (Fall, 2011). Thompson’s piece in the Atlantic Monthly on how mass incarceration has distorted democracy in America was named a finalist for a best magazine article award in 2014.

Thompson is also the author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (new edition out May, 2017), and is the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.

On the policy front Thompson served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the U.S. The two-year, $1.5 million project was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thompson has served as well on the boards of several policy organizations including the Prison Policy Initiative, the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic site, and on the advisory boards of Life of the Law. She has also worked in an advisory capacity with the Center for Community Change, the Humanities Action Lab Global Dialogues on Incarceration, and the Open Society Foundation on issues related to work. Thompson has also spent considerable time presenting her work on prisons and justice policy to universities and policy groups nationally and internationally as well as to state legislators in various states. She has given talks in countries such as France, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, the UK, as well as across the Unites States, including in Hawaii.

In 2016 Thompson became President-elect of the Urban History Association and, in 2012 the Organization of American Historians named her a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians and, along with Rhonda Y. Williams (Case Western Reserve), she currently edits a manuscript series for UNC Press, Justice, Power, and Politics. She is also the sole editor of the series, American Social Movements of the Twentieth Century published by Routledge. Thompson has consulted on several documentary films including Criminal Injustice at Attica and assisted with other documentary films including one on Criminalization in America by filmmakers Annie Stopford and Llewellyn Smith from BlueSpark Collaborative, another produced by Henry Louis Gates entitled, And Still I Rise: Black Power to the White House for PBS, and one soon to be done on the Bard Prison Initiative.

Presenter: Kenneth Alyass, Harvard University
Kenneth Alyass is a Ph.D. student in history at Harvard University where he studies race, class, and crime in American cities during the late twentieth-century.

Kenneth holds a B.A. in History from Wayne State University in the heart of Detroit, and his previous work focused on the intersection between urban redevelopment and policing. He has presented at multiple conferences such as the American Historical Association, Midwestern History Conference, and the Urban History Association. He is also published in the Michigan Journal of History.

Presenter: Telisha Dionne Bailey, Colgate University
T. DIONNE BAILEY is assistant professor of History at Colgate University. A historian whose interdisciplinary work focuses on the mass incarceration of Black girls and women in the South, Bailey is the founder of I-VOW (I am a Voice of Women), a nonprofit organization that aids incarcerated women in their transition out of the penal system. Bailey is currently working on her first book project, "'Daughters of Jim Crow's Injustice': African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Business of Black Women's Bodies, 1890–1980."

Presenter: DeAnza Avonna Cook, Harvard University
DeAnza Cook is a Ph.D. Candidate and Presidential Scholar in the History Department at Harvard University. Her doctoral research specializes in the evolution of urban police science, police reform, and police business in modern America. Cook’s dissertation examines why and how police officers, police partners, and Black Americans coterminously revamped urban police research and development during the post-Civil Rights era. By exploring the entangled relationship between city anti-crime counterinsurgency campaigns and nationwide experimental crime control efforts, her work traces the ascendance of proactive “problem-oriented” law enforcement practices in Greater Boston and beyond at the dawn of the twenty-first century. At Harvard, Cook serves as a Resident Tutor and Engaged Scholarship fellow. She is a recipient of the Mellon Urban Initiative award, as well as the Center for American Political Studies graduate research fellowship. In addition to her doctoral studies, she administers Race, Policing, and The Constitution in-service seminars for law enforcement officers in her home state of Virginia. She also teaches an African American history course for incarcerated students at MCI-Norfolk.

Presenter: Corbin Page, University of Chicago
Corbin Page is a Doctoral Candidate in History at the University of Chicago. He studies US legal history, history of criminal law, and the history of the social and human sciences

Presenter: Charlotte E. Rosen, Northwestern University
Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student who specializes in post-1960s United States political history and the history of the United States carceral state. Her dissertation, entitled “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” examines the history of prisons, punishment, and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania, with a focus on the politics of prison overcrowding and Black protest to the emergent carceral regime in the 1980s and 1990s. She is particularly interested in critical prison studies, historical studies of the American state and federalism, political economy, and social movements.

Charlotte also tutors weekly at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men's prison in Illinois, with the Northwestern Prison Education Program, where she is also on the Graduate Student Advisory Council. She is also a co-coordinator of the Comparative Historical Social Science Workshop.

Prior to graduate school, Charlotte worked for a housing justice organization in the Bay Area. She received her B.A. in History from St. Olaf College. She is originally from outside Philadelphia.

Presenter: Alyssa Smith, Independent Scholar
Alyssa Smith is a public-facing historian specializing in United States histories of violence, memory, and culture with a strong political commitment to anti-violence work, transformative justice, and all historical projects that advance understandings of race, gender, and power. Her research focuses on how moments of direct violence that become spectacularized through media narratives and cultural venues have shaped, and continue to shape, political and social life in the U.S. With a BA in history from the University of Maryland and PhD from the University of Chicago, she is currently pursuing a career as a freelance writer, researcher, and historian.

Presenter: Danielle Lee Wiggins, Caltech
Danielle Wiggins is an assistant professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in history from Emory University in May 2018 and her B.A. in History from Yale in 2012. Her research examines the intersections between post-civil rights black politics and the rightward moving Democratic Party of the 1970s and 1980s.