A cage is a cage is a cage. We want strategies that let people out of cages, not ones that are for building nicer or better cages.
—Annotation in the meeting notes of the Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC) on community alternatives to plans for the building of a $27 million “gender-responsive” women’s jail in Chicopee, MA, 2006
During the final year of my graduate program, I participated in a national memory project entitled States of Incarceration. This project, organized by the Humanities Action Lab at the New School, consists of a traveling exhibition and an accompanying website. Teams of students and people directly affected by incarceration from 20 cities each explores a history of incarceration in their own community.
UMass Amherst’s contribution examines the history of incarceration in Massachusetts through the lens of gender, “reform,” and Reproductive Justice. The exhibition is currently traveling around the U.S., scheduled to arrive in the Pioneer Valley in February-March 2017 and my hometown of Saratoga Springs, NY, in October 2017.
My role in the project included creating video interviews with prison justice activists in Massachusetts and New York (specifically, Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and Tina Reynolds of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), blog posts about prison justice activism in Western Massachusetts, and an exhibit panel on how the carceral state impacts Massachusetts youth.
I was fortunate to attend the States of Incarceration launch and conference in April 2016, where I had the opportunity to hear Venida Browder talk about her son, Kalief Browder, who endured three years at Rikers Island while awaiting trial, and committed suicide after his release. I was also fortunate to discuss UMass Amherst’s contributions to the exhibit alongside my colleagues Solobia Hutchins (Mother and Activist, Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition) and Amy Halliday (Gallery Director, Hampshire College).
Participating in this project has given me some insights about the role of historians in enacting social change. Of course, we know that looking to the past can help us understand the present and create more just futures. But most importantly, I learned that sometimes we have to step back and recognize that we are not the authority in many matters. Academia provides a position of power and privilege that shields us from many forms of violence and oppression. (I am a white woman with a graduate degree, who has never been arrested or incarcerated.)
Our first task is to use our privileged position to create space for more voices than our own.
Our second task is to listen, and to listen actively.
Reforming Gender and the Carceral State: What Are Women’s Prisons For?