Participant Projects: Abstracts

John R. Chaney & Joni Schwartz: Gift from the Dark: Learning from the Incarceration Experience

Book description: Drawing on classic prison texts by Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself), Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning), Martin Luther King (Letters from a Birmingham Jail) and Malcolm X (The Autobiography of Malcolm X – by Alex Haley); this book makes the case that the prison cell is a counterspace that despite (and tragically sometimes because of) its frequent cruelty and injustice can be a space of adult transformative learning – in the words of Nelson Mandela “…. the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly to the process of your own mind and feelings.”

We are working on a number of chapters simultaneously and do not yet know which chapter(s) we will share in this institute for workshopping. If you have specific requests for which you’d like us to share, please do let us know in your feedback

Read the full proposal here.

Bijoyeta Das: “Mass Incarceration and the Undocumented”

This essay compares how the language and architecture of mass incarceration is being used against undocumented immigrants in the United States of America and suspected migrants in India.

The aggressive use of US Code Title 8, Section 1325, a federal law that makes entering the United States without permission a federal crime is leading to rise of immigrant detention.

In India, the 2019 National Register of Citizens excluded 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam. Those excluded have to provide documentary evidence of citizenship to foreigner tribunals, while the government is building mass detention camps.

By comparing the rise of strongmen and nationalism in the US and India, it will examine how the spirit of mass incarceration is shaping the structures of detention of the undocumented.

Cory Feldman

In February of 2020, the COVID -19 pandemic radically changed the landscape of education as we know it. School buildings closed, social distancing was enacted, and online learning quickly became the norm for public school children in free society. For many young people in juvenile detention centers, however, the COVID-19 changes have been less responsive to their needs. Living in group quarters, without access to Internet or Wifi, the public school teachers left detention facilities, along with programming staff and most other civilians, including lawyers, mental health workers and other people deemed “non-essential.”
Just as the fight for access to equal education was hard won in the past, the fight for digital education equity has just begun. The distribution of educational resources like tablets to every free public school student, failed to include young people in juvenile detention facilities. At the same time, this crisis presented an opportunity for some youth justice programmers who developed a curriculum tailored to the needs of young people in custody during COVID-19. This curriculum, developed by educators, artists and activists, is intended to connect youth in detention to higher education like never before. Using a self-guided curriculum on the learning devices, incarcerated youth will be exposed to credit-bearing classes as well as opportunities to earn certifications, apply for training upon release, and develop their own plans for the community.

This paper explores the challenges of developing and implementing an online college course for youth in one New York City juvenile detention facility. Through a critical race lens, this study examines how the right to digital access has been addressed by educators and activists along with the challenges of developing content for learning devices, which are not equipped with Internet or Wifi. This study examines the efforts of activists and teachers to open access to online college classes for incarcerated juveniles for the first time in New York City. The incarcerated students during the COVID-19 epidemic demonstrate the power of education to transform youth and elevate their expectations for when they return to the community.

Bethany Holmstrom: “Good At Violence”

I’ll be drafting a short story about a man who was convicted of a drug-related felony when he was 17. The story begins when he’s out, clean, and interviewing for a job as a maintenance man at a church. I’ll be doing research into drug convictions in Virginia, the conditions of the prisons in rural counties, and protection systems common to prison settings (the protagonist offers protection to other inmates during his imprisonment). The lack of resources and the denial of rights to those who were formerly incarcerated will be folded into the narrative. 

Rochell Isaac

For African Americans, mass incarceration is still arguably the Civil Rights issue of our time though the devasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may shift that paradigm. Still, the issue should be of concern to all Americans as notions of freedom, liberty, equality and justice are of paramount importance to our democracy. The article will explore specific tropes and representation of black criminality and pathology embedded in the anti-black language of law and order. I argue that a rhetoric of law and order facilitated the War on Crime then the War on Drugs which led to mass incarceration. In addition, law and order rhetoric was and continues to be used to perpetuate the notion of African American criminality to mask a state sanctioned agenda of exclusion and discrimination. Furthermore, today’s current attempts to reform the criminal justice system appears fragmented, piecemeal and too lengthy to bring about meaningful change.

Jill Kehoe

My project involves an investigation into the motivations of criminal justice students pursuing law enforcement careers. I intend to create a survey designed to assess occupational ambitions, influences, and motives amongst first year criminal justice majors interested in working in law enforcement. More specifically, the survey will investigate the extent to which career decisions are impacted by views of positive career attributes (salary, status, location, job security, etc.), media consumption (criminal justice show type, beliefs of show objectivity), and perceptions of law enforcement (job responsibilities, corruption, misconduct, etc.). A better understanding of career aspirations and the influences behind them will assist in understanding the mindsets of future law enforcement professionals and optimizing undergraduate criminal justice education.

Karen Miller

I am currently working on a book project that addresses interisland migration in the Philippines from the beginning of the American colonial period (1902) into the Philippine Republic (1950s). My project examines state-sponsored efforts to move Filipinos from areas deemed “over-populated” into regions that government leaders cast as the “frontier.” In my first chapter, I will consider one of the earliest manifestations of this kind of migration, which began in 1904 when the Bureau of Prisons started to transfer incarcerated men from Bilibid prison in Manila into a newly opened penal colony. This penal colony, which came to be called Iwahig, was in Palawan, a southwestern island far from the capital. Palawan had already been targeted as a site for the expansion of commercial agricultural and Iwahig fit into this plan. In my project, I argue that this penal colony should be seen as a model for future frontier development—both linked to the Bureau of Prisons, which opened another large penal colony in the 1930s, and development that was not officially connected to incarceration. Indeed, I argue, incarceration and the transport of incarcerated people were the blueprints for the management of domestic populations deemed surplus by the state. Today, the Philippines (at 179 per 100,000) has a far lower incarceration rate than the United States (at 655 per 100,000). However, as this book chapter will illustrate, the carceral tools of interisland migration came to be scaled up and transformed into a key element of state formation.

My project is fundamentally a humanities project. As a historian, I read primary documents closely and use those analyses to produce stories about the past that are intimately linked to contemporary dynamics. Mass incarceration is built on the premise that some human lives can and should be fundamentally controlled by the state. I’m interested in how interisland migration was literally connected to institutions responsible for imprisonment and incarceration in the Philippines. At the same time, I am interested in the ways that these migrations helped foster elements of a carceral state that expanded into aspects of life that were institutionally outside of prisons, penal colonies, and jails.

I have been working on this book project since 2010, but it is only in the past few years that Iwahig and the Davao Penal Colony have become such central elements of my argument. I am currently working on the chapter I described above and hope to finish a draft of it this summer. If accepted, this seminar would come at a perfect time for me.

Shannon Proctor: “Teaching Mass Incarceration Through the Liberal Arts:
An Assessment of Capstone ePortfolio Projects”

LIB200: Humanism, Science, and Technology is a capstone course that all Liberal Arts students take at LaGuardia Community College. The course is organized around a central topic that allows students to synthesize and integrate the methods and content that have learned throughout their previous liberal arts coursework. My project will evaluate the success of a new ePortfolio capstone project that was implemented over the past year in two sections of LIB200, which developed out of my participation in an NEH-funded Summer Institute on Mass Incarceration and the Humanities. The central topic used for these courses was mass incarceration. Throughout the semester, students engaged with materials that explored this topic from a number of liberal arts disciplines (e.g., psychology, philosophy, English, economics, history, and media studies). Additionally, they read articles that helped them develop their understanding of the key concepts of humanism, science, and technology. The main assignment for the course was a large-stakes, staged research project that culminated in the creation of an ePortfolio blog. Students were tasked with developing a research question connected to mass incarceration, which they then explored using an integrative liberal arts approach. My aim in this assessment is to evaluate whether this project allowed students to achieve the learning outcomes of LIB200, as well as to determine whether this project remains viable given the shift to distance learning that occurred in Spring ‘20 (and is likely to continue in Fall ‘20).

Diana Rickard: “Where the Devil Truly Resides”

“Where the Devil Truly Resides” is being developed as a journal article to explore recent long form docuseries that focus on (possible) wrongful conviction. Paradise Lost (3 films), the podcast Serial, The Staircase, Atlanta Monster, and Making a Murderer are all enormously popular documentaries that garnered wide-spread media attention and generated activism and advocacy on the part of audiences. The paper will analyze the way ideas of deviance are articulated through recourse to concepts of either “evil” or sociopathy, and how facile markers of normativity are employed. Prosecution relies on concepts such as happiness, heterosexuality, middle class status, affective geniality, communication style, and demeanor. The idea of “the monster” is invoked, implicitly or explicitly, as audiences of some documentaries are presented with the possibility that a fiendish maniac might be concealed beneath apparently average people in our midst. Conversely, other audiences are presented with the likelihood that the subjects who are in some ways odious (to some) on the outside are in reality average and decent people. For example, an investigator for the prosecution in Making a Murder says of Avery’s family, pointing to their poverty, “This is truly where the devil resides in comfort… I can find no good in any member. These people are pure evil.” In a more clinical sense, the contemporary colloquial vernacular of sociopathy comes into play and replaces the idea of pure evil to explain the contrast between appearance and reality. I look at the racialized history of innocence in American culture in the context of depictions of White rural poor and Black urban defendants. In addition to historical sources, this chapter will draw on traditional mid-century scholarly writings on deviance, and literary studies (in particular looking at the grotesque and monster theory.

Chris Schmidt: “Carceral Time in Photography and Poetry: Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright’s One Big Self

For the NEH “Incarceration and the Humanities” Institute, I propose to write a conference paper and publishable article on the remarkable documentary collaboration by photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright, entitled One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (published by Twin Palms Press in 2003). My paper will explore how Luster and Wright use their chosen mediums to express distinct but complimentary understandings of carceral time.
Luster uses the antiquated format of aluminum plates to take portraits of inmates, conjuring historical legacies of racial violence that can be traced back to the Civil War era when tintype photography was introduced. The ghostly chiaroscuro effect of Luster’s aluminum–plate prints also expresses a sense that the prisoners are—and will forever be—haunted by the traumas of violence they carry with them through incarceration. Wright’s poetry, on the other hand, captures time by underscoring the numbing repetitiveness of incarceration, and the prisoners’ methods for coping with it, both expressed through “the count.” In prose, Wright captures the disciplinary use of time by the prison administration: “Count heads. Count the men’s. Count the women’s….” (4). A verse poem preceding this prose reportage, however, expresses a more affirmative sense of counting—one that encompasses the prisoners’ lives before, during, and after incarceration.

The title of Luster and Wright’s book, One Big Self, alludes to this dual-edged sense of “the count,” and our own implication as citizens in supporting an infrastructure in which, driving through the rural south, “you can pass four prisons in less than an hour” (ix).

Click here to see images.

Jennifer Wynn

My project is a book proposal based on my work as a mitigation specialist on over 25 death penalty cases since 2008. Considered a critical member of capital defense teams, mitigation specialists tell the life story of defendants.We spend countless hours interviewing our clients in jail in the year (or several years) before trial begins, visiting their neighborhoods and homes and speaking with people who know them, and conducting an exhaustive search of records, from their mother’s prenatal and birth records to their school, medical, social service, employment, and criminal history records. We do this to understand and capture on paper our lients’ lived experiences, including the events that caused their lives to unravel in the months and days preceding the murder, the severe environmental deprivations that reduced their life chances and narrowed their choices from birth, and the often overlooked “good person evidence” such as acts of kindness, good deeds, courage, remorse and acceptance of responsibility, which, when unearthed, can tilt the scale of moral blameworthiness everso slightly toward the side of mercy.

Each of the book’s eight chapters focuses on an individual defendant and case, delves into the backgrounds of the defendant, the details of the murders, how the case unfolded, and the Sisyphean battle of capital defense teams as prosecutors outmatch them in resources, leverage and credibility. The overarching goals of the book are to humanize “murderers” and to show the human impact of a deeply flawed system which, 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) to eradicate the arbitrary and racist application of the death penalty, continues to perpetuate racism and violence.