The Intimate Carceral State: New Perspectives on Carceral Crises

Endorsed by OHA

Friday, March 31, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Gender and Sexuality; Politics


Although the language of the carceral state invokes a massive and coordinated governing behemoth, this panel considers the fundamentally local and lived experiences of postwar carcerality through individual, intimate contacts with carceral institutions. Bringing into view a range of interpretive methods, including African-American history, women’s history, biography, and labor history, these papers challenge the notion that the lived experience of carceral history is purely institutional or organized. In “Suspect or Collateral Damage?: Black Women and Police in 1970s Philadelphia,” Menika Dirkson addresses the oft-overlooked experiences of Black women who died as innocent bystanders during police shootouts. Revealing how these deaths shaped community trust in the police, Dirkson revises narratives of the victim’s rights movement that emphasized white women’s vulnerability to center state violence against women of color. In “Policing Pornography Consumption Through the Carceral State” La Shonda Mims evaluates the rise of judicial discretion around sentencing for child pornography possession in the early 2000s as a political response to rampant criminalization fueled by white Christian Right and liberal fears about child endangerment in the 1980s and 1990s. Bridging judicial policymaking and politicized ideals of child innocence, Mims brings into view how tensions between child protection and the right to privacy have contributed to the resilience and unpredictability of the carceral state amid reform. In “The Whole Street Thing”: Claude Brown’s Vision of Postwar Harlem,” Dan Royles examines how the groundbreaking autobiography of Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land, influenced debates about the urban crisis, including the ways in which Brown used his position as a well-known Black public intellectual to argue for an increasingly punitive approach to juvenile crime during the last two decades of his life. Finally, “Why Medical Examiner Assessments Matter When Police Kill: The Case of Jacqueline Ford,” Will Tchakirides explores how the intimate labor of medical examiners determined the possibilities and outcomes of investigations of police violence in postwar Milwaukee. In showing how the families of victims mobilized to contest new webs of carceral collaboration among government workers, Tchakirides offers the spectacles of inquests as sites of deeper negotiations over accountability and the value of Black life. As they situate carceral contact in the worlds of urban life in Milwaukee, New York City, and Philadelphia, and in policy arenas shaped by culture, consumption, and media, these papers reveal the interior, emotional consequences of state violence and how carcerality shaped life and death in postwar America.

Papers Presented

Why Medical Examiner Assessments Matter When Police Kill: The Case of Jacqueline Ford

In 1972, a Milwaukee police detective shot and killed a 19-year-old Black woman while executing a search warrant. An inquest hearing held to determine the cause of Jacqueline Ford's death exonerated the white detective, who claimed to have shot Ford “by accident.” According to a deputy medical examiner, Snead Carroll “was not conscious of the act of pulling the trigger.” Consequently, they ruled “excusable homicide” and the District Attorney filed no criminal charges. Black community outrage led to protests and demands for “community control of the police,” both in the form of decentralization and hiring more Black patrolmen. Sarah Ford, meanwhile, confronted police lies and false media portrayals of her daughter. She shared humanizing reflections, while also filing a federal civil rights lawsuit. Nonetheless, the inquest hearing institutionally re-affirmed Black Milwaukee's policing crisis and the MPD’s unchecked authority to kill. In ensuing years, Milwaukee County medical examiners continued to shape public understandings of violent police encounters and prosecutor decision-making. Most notably, they argued “fright” contributed to Ernest Lacy's 1981 asphyxiation, not the suffocating force of a police knee to the back. This presentation takes up the county inquest hearing as an under-appreciated site of struggle over police power and the value of over-policed Black lives, especially Black women’s. It argues that when medical examiners elide police use of force in formal assessments, they reify police power. Any re-conceptualization of public safety must account for that fact, as well as how local government institutions are networked to ensure racist criminal-legal outcomes.

Presented By
Will Tchakirides, Independent Historian

“The Whole Street Thing”: Claude Brown’s Vision of Postwar Harlem

Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown’s autobiographical novel first published in 1965, won praise from critics upon its release and has sold millions of copies worldwide. Brown offered a gritty portrayal of everyday Harlemites’ struggles to survive during the 1940s and 50s, and recounted his troubled youth spent in and out of reform institutions. Brown published his novel just as Americans were struggling to make sense of urban violence and growing black militancy alongside the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. His tale of a Harlem crowded with gangs, junkies, and prostitutes, and his transformation from juvenile delinquent to respectable young man spoke to pressing issues of race and poverty in America. Brown spent much of his adult life lecturing on these subjects, but we have yet to understand how he shaped conversations about the unfolding “urban crisis” after the 1960s. Manchild was published at a pivotal moment when key elements of the carceral state were taking shape, and a thorough examination of the book and its author allows us to trace the shifting politics of crime and policing, as they unfolded in real time. Using archival and oral history research, this paper will examine the politics of authenticity surrounding Manchild, including the ways that Brown’s memoir was framed by white commentators, from journalist Tom Wolfe to U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, as an unmediated, uncomplicated account of life in Harlem. It will then briefly trace the book’s influence through Brown’s later career as a writer and public speaker, when he pivoted toward a tough-on-crime political stance.. In doing so, this paper will argue that Brown played an as-yet-unrecognized role in giving intellectual cover to the War on Drugs as it was ratcheted up during the 1970s and 80s.

Presented By
Dan Royles, Florida International University

“Suspect or Collateral Damage?: Black Women and Police in 1970s Philadelphia”

Since 2012, there has been great interest and concern about the use of deadly police force on Black American men and boys. Although black males, suspects and innocent bystanders, are often the victim of excessive force by police, how much do we know about black women and their experiences with the police? I would like to investigate the police shooting deaths of Black women and girls in Philadelphia over the last fifty years. From 1970 to 1979, Philadelphia witnessed 469 police-involved shootings. In 1978, 66% of individuals wounded or killed by police were African American. During the entire decade, over 90% of the people shot by police were male. While these cases involve a mixture of police pursuing suspects who were unarmed, armed, fleeing, or guilty of a forcible felony, only a small percentage involved women who were often innocent bystanders and became collateral damage in police shootouts with suspects. Furthermore, I would like to discuss the silenced narrative of Black women’s deadly experiences with the police through an exploration of cases like the 1977 death of seventeen-year-old, innocent bystander Vanessa Collins in South Philadelphia. By exploring obscure incidents like the Collins case, we can learn how gender bias in crime and policing shape news media narratives, tough on crime politics, crime alleviation initiatives, and movements against police brutality in major urban cities today.

Presented By
Menika Dirkson, Morgan State University

Policing Pornography Consumption Through the Carceral State

Encouraged by a white Christian Right backlash that dominated Republican politics, an increased policing of sex at the end of the twentieth century overwhelmingly incarcerated white men in the twenty-first century. Beginning in the 1980s, the creation of mandatory minimums for drug possession occurred in tandem with the criminalization of child pornography possession. As the state focused on protecting white youth from sex crimes, Black youth were policed harshly and without similar protections. This paper explores the rise of mass incarceration and its relationship to internet child pornography consumption and possession through an analysis of sentencing guidelines and legal rulings, to demonstrate the role of the state in defining sex. Some legal scholars argue that the focus on possession misses the opportunity to protect children. The data on possession do not support a direct linkage to physical molestation crimes. Because the sentences for possession are based on the number of images a person owns, and to possess the images you must receive them on the Internet, possession sentencing falls under mandatory minimum guidelines of at least five years. The average sentence for a person receiving images in 2018 was 105 months, while 2.9% had a prior conviction of other sex crimes against children. As judges in the 21st century questioned the penalties and reassessed the differences between possession, viewing, and distributing, they strayed from federal sentencing guidelines, even as laws continued to vary between states and the federal system.

Presented By
La Shonda Mims, Middle Tennessee State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Peter Constantine Pihos, Western Washington University

Presenter: Menika Dirkson, Morgan State University
Menika Dirkson is a Visiting Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University. Her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson is currently researching race, crime, and policing surrounding the public transportation system in post-1958 Philadelphia.

Presenter: La Shonda Mims, Middle Tennessee State University
La Shonda Mims is an Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. Concerned with the intersections of gender, race, region, and queer identity, her forthcoming book, “Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists,” examines lesbian life in the U.S. South. It will be published in 2023 by the University of North Carolina Press. Her 2019 article, published in the Journal of Women’s History, explores lesbian-feminist action in the urban New South. Mims is currently at work on two new research projects. One interrogates the transnational history of Pentecostalism and queer identity, while her newest work examines mass incarceration and sex policing.

Presenter: Dan Royles, Florida International University
Dan Royles is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University. He is an historian of the United States, African American life and culture, public health, sexuality, social movements, and the human body. His current book project, To Make the Wounded Whole: African-American Responses to HIVAIDS, published with UNC Press in 2020, examines grassroots responses to the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS on black communities. Looking at the claims that African American AIDS activists made on government institutions, private granting agencies, and AIDS service organizations, this project locates their efforts to combat the deadly epidemic in the context of much longer histories of black health activism, and the way that African Americans have framed their fight for inclusion and equality in the United States in relation to other struggles throughout the African Diaspora and global south. Dr. Royles is also conducting an oral history project among African American AIDS activists and building an online archive of materials related to HIV and AIDS in African American communities. He also contributes regularly to Vitae, the academic jobs web portal from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and to OutHistory.

Presenter: Will Tchakirides, Independent Historian
Dr. Will Tchakirides is a public historian and scholar of race and policing in the United States. He currently works as a Research Assistant for the Smithsonian Institution’s “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past” initiative and as a consultant on the Wisconsin Community Activism Now digital archiving project. Tchakirides holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a MA in Public History from American University, and a BA from Suffolk University. His dissertation, “‘Accountable to No One’: Confronting Police Power in Black Milwaukee,” traces the long history of police violence and Black-led movements for accountability in one of America’s most racially punitive cities. This work forms the basis of a book project exploring the racist underpinnings of police reform in 20th century Milwaukee and how local consolidations of police power and legitimacy in a place once touted as America’s “safest city” informed national “community policing” strategies.