UMass Amherst Public History Program is Part of Coalition to Receive $250,000 NEH Grant for Major Study of U.S. Incarceration

Solobia Hutchins, Ruby King and Holly Richardson of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition protest at the construction site of the women’s jail in Chicopee, Massachusetts in 2006. Photo courtesy of the Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Solobia Hutchins, Ruby King and Holly Richardson of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition protest at the construction site of the women’s jail in Chicopee, Massachusetts in 2006. Photo courtesy of the Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

AMHERST, Mass. – The Humanities Action Lab (HAL), a coalition of 20 universities including the University of Massachusetts and its Public History Program, has received a $250,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support “States of Incarceration,” a traveling exhibit, web platform and series of curricula focusing on mass incarceration.

Led by The New School in New York, HAL has invited students and people directly affected by incarceration in 20 cities to explore their own communities’ experience with incarceration – how it evolved historically and what issues remain today. Each team created one local “chapter” of what will be compiled into a collective, multi-faceted portrait of incarceration, past and present, framed by the key questions these histories raise.

The exhibition will open at The New School’s Sheila Johnson Galleries in April and over the next three years will travel to each of the 20 participating communities. The exhibit will travel to Holyoke in partnership with Wistariahurst Museum, and to the Forbes Library in Northampton in March 2017, with further collaboration from the UMass Amherst History Department’s Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series.

Marla Miller, director of the UMass Amherst public history program, calls mass incarceration “one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.” She notes that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world and at any other moment in its history, with deep racial disparities that reinforce broader racial inequality.

“Our effort to document these Massachusetts stories—both about the history of women’s incarceration here, and the stories of activists working to restore reproductive justice for women caught up in those systems—is part of a larger national effort to promote public conversation around these urgent topics, and we’re very proud to be part of that work,” says Miller.

Developed by public history graduate students in collaboration with local community organizers, UMass Amherst’s portion of the exhibit focuses on how ideas about women and gender have been used to justify the creation of new jails and prisons for women in Massachusetts. They have traced this history from the 1877 creation of the Framingham Reformatory Prison for Women (now MCI-Framingham), which was one of the nation’s first separate prisons for women, through the construction and expansion of the women’s jail in Chicopee.

UMass graduate students also developed a website on this history, which includes interviews with local and national women and LGBTQ activists. Other graduate students created a resource guide for prison museums and researched the history of jails in Northampton before the 1985 completion of the current Hampshire County Jail.

UMass Amherst’s public history program was also a founding collaborator in launching the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, an internationally traveling exhibit, web platform and series of dialogues reaching over 500,000 people in 18 cities. That project served as the pilot for HAL.

NEH chair William D. Adams praises the project saying, “The Humanities Action Lab project will bring new audiences and organizations together in ways that address compelling public concerns.”

In addition to UMass Amherst, universities partnering in “States of Incarceration” are Arizona State University, Brown University, DePaul University, Duke University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Northeastern University, Parsons Paris, Rutgers University-Newark, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Skidmore College, The New School, University of California, Riverside, University of Connecticut, University of Miami, University of Minnesota, University of New Orleans, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University of Texas at Austin, and Vanderbilt University.

 

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