Publication Date

November 18, 2022

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

Eastern State Penitentiary, located just over a mile north of the AHA23 meeting headquarters, operated from 1829 to 1971. It was an early, influential experiment with solitary confinement; at the time, depriving the imprisoned of all human contact and freeing them to dwell on their misdeeds was seen as reformatory and humane. The prison marks Philadelphia as an important location in the development of the American criminal justice system long before the so-called War on Drugs launched our contemporary carceral state, and before intra-urban highways and White flight gutted American cities after World War II. The city is thus a fitting place for the many sessions that address carceral history at this year’s annual meeting. Here are a few examples of what you will find on the program:

AHA23 Annual Conference Poster.

AHA23 Annual Conference Poster.

Urban Crisis Reconsidered: Racial Capitalism, Punishment, and Resistance in Postwar Philadelphia

Friday, January 5, 10:30-12:00 p.m. 

This session confronts the issue directly, offering papers which examine local campaigns against incarceration, police brutality, and “anti-poverty” measures. Chaired by Matthew Jon Countryman (Univ. of Michigan), the panel features papers by Charlotte Rosen (Northwestern Univ.) on prison overcrowding, Alyssa Ribeiro (Allegheny Coll.) on resistance to rising utility costs, Menika Dirkson (Morgan State Univ.) on hyperpolicing, and Sam Schirvar (Univ. of Pennsylvania) on economic development and unemployment.

Race, Empire, Gender, and the Making of the US Carceral State

Saturday, January 6, 3:30-5:00 p.m.

Chaired by Robert T. Chase (State Univ. of New York at Stony Brook) this session expands the discussion both spatially and temporally. This session includes presentations by Luke Frederick (Georgetown Univ.) on incarceration and race in pre–Civil War Washington, DC; Balraj Gill (Harvard Univ.) on biopolitics, settler colonialism, and Indigeneity; Erica Lally (Georgetown Univ.) on women and incarceration in New Orleans during World War I; and Donna Truglio Haverty-Stacke (Graduate Center of the City Univ. of New York) on gender and the Alderson federal prison camp.

The War on Drugs and the Working Class City 

Saturday, January 6, 3:30-5:00 p.m. 

This session broadens the spatial dimension but focuses on specific aspects of carcerality. Chaired by Jackson Smith (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) and Anne Gray Fisher (Univ. of Texas at Dallas) it presents papers by Smith on policing and the Philadelphia “badlands,” Michael Stauch (Univ. of Toledo) on Detroit’s war on the poor, Maya Singhal (Harvard Univ.) on the intersection between the war on drugs and the Cold War, and Pedro Regalado (Stanford Univ.) on capitalism and the drug trade in New York City.

In addition to these dedicated sessions, several others contain papers that deal directly with imprisonment and the carceral state. The History of Violence Roundtable (Thursday, January 5, 1:30-3:00 p.m.) features Robert T. Chase as a discussant speaking on the history of violence in relation to the carceral state, drawing on his research on sheriffs in the US South. In The South Got Somethin’ to Say: Black Women’s Experiences and Activism in Mississippi and North Carolina (Friday, January 6, 8:30-10:00 a.m.), T. Dionne Bailey (Colgate Univ.) will present on the incarceration of Black female Freedom Riders in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary. Finally, in The Political Lives of Infrastructure (Saturday, January 7, 3:30-5:00 p.m.), Golnar S. Nikpour brings an international dimension to the conversation with a discussion of changing approaches to carceral infrastructures in Iran since the 1920s.

Curious what else you’ll find at AHA23? Check out the full program online.

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Leland Grigoli
Leland Renato Grigoli

American Historical Association