In the final chapter of Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault places the moment of the ultimate creation of the modern penal system in France in 1840 with the opening of the Mettray colony for delinquent boys. Mettray was part of a network that included, among other types of institutions “almshouses for young female offenders who ‘recoiled before the idea of entering a life of disorder.’” For Foucault this “carceral archipelago” represents nothing less than the historical transformation of an entire philosophy and technology of punishment and its extension outward from the criminal justice system to the “entire social body” (1977, p. 297).
The February issue of Perspectives on History provides some insights into this cultural phenomenon from late 19th-century Indiana. Michelle Jones, author of “Women’s Prison History: The Undiscovered Country,” describes a similar array of institutions appearing in Indianapolis, where several penal and reform institutions for women were opened in the 1870s. Jones’s article describes the research that she and her fellow students in the Indiana Women’s Prison college program are doing for a book they are writing on the first 15 years of the history of the prison. In her article she writes about new discoveries they are making about the prison itself, the insights they are gaining into women’s prison history in the United States, and the challenges of doing historical research in prison.
Kelsey Kauffmann, one of the founders of the college program at IWP, also has a piece in the February issue. In “Academia in Prison: The Role of the University in an Era of Mass Incarceration,” Kauffmann convincingly argues for the value of her “prison students’ insights.” She also invites the readers of Perspectives to help track down research leads and volunteer to teach in the program.
Together these two pieces will open your eyes to the difficulties and benefits of historical scholarship that’s happening in a very unexpected place.
This post first appeared on AHA Today.
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