In the case of Eastern State, most of those incarcerated in the early nineteenth century were for non-violent crimes such as horse theft and counterfeiting. However, one of the most important factors contributing to the dramatic increase in incarceration in the early twentieth century—as well as the corresponding prison building spree and ultimately the abandonment of the principles upon which Eastern State was established—owed largely to Prohibition, and the criminalization of producing, transporting, and selling of alcohol although also the criminalization of prostitution, counterfeiting, motor vehicle theft, and tax evasion.
Public citizens today need the means to connect the dots. Most are probably not well aware that the Prohibition movement itself lasted from the s to the s; the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ratified Prohibition in , and then the Twenty-first Amendment repealed it in Moreover, as Alexander has documented, people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at the same rates, which again forces us to come to terms with the wildly disproportionate numbers of incarcerated minorities. Meanwhile as massive prison industrial growth continues pretty much unabated with decreases in some US states compensated by increases in others , the building of new prisons and jails means the decommissioning of others.
There are an estimated three hundred decommissioning sites in the US today. As historical geographers we have an opportunity to scrutinize bond issues that control what is being built, what is being torn down, and what is happening with these sites. Most of the local news deals with prison employment issues and the private contracting of work in the new facility, but there is an opportunity here as well to pay close attention to this mothballing process.
Oftentimes, prisons are closed in order to justify new building projects, but are later re-opened later due to overpopulation pressures. My second example also draws from the work of historical societies and heritage commissions—groups that play an important role in constructing and maintaining sites of the carceral past.
There are many prisons and jails which might be considered historic: those that have been turned into commercially driven tourist sites but also other heritage sites that are perhaps empty and abandoned, and which have no particular capital-generating potential. One such site is an abandoned jailhouse in the town of Steinauer, Nebraska. My maternal ancestors, natives of Switzerland, founded the town in on land that the Otoe-Missouri people of southeastern Nebraska were forced to sell to the government in various installments beginning in , before their eventual removal to Oklahoma Territory in These Swiss settlers purchased hundreds of acres of Indian land from the federal government in what was then Nebraska Territory until , for 1.
In the early twentieth century the population of the town reached , when the railroad still passed through it; today 75 people remain. Friends and family occasionally gather for reunions here, at a former Catholic convent now converted into a bed-and-breakfast. Figure 2. Photograph by Lana Miller. Nineteen of the still-standing structures in the town are now listed in the Nebraska Historical Society registry.
This jail appears to be made for a single individual, standing room only. Local sources say it was originally located behind the tavern, which likely made its most frequent function to detain drunk or disorderly locals until they sobered up. Such jails are briefly mentioned in the Nebraska Territorial Statutes of , which notes that the county sheriff deputized people in the villages to handle the drunk and disorderly. They reported that. Anecdotally, there are many such town jails throughout the state of Nebraska still standing. They offer historical geographers important insights into how concepts of criminal behavior intersected with social marginalization and exclusion in early American settlement farming communities, particularly insights into how vagrancy and homelessness were understood and criminalized.
These I think are particularly compelling questions if we consider that such carceral settings were, again, likely operating outside of official albeit developing western legal frameworks. Figure 3. Photograph by author. Programing during this period emphasized helping clients through emotional control therapy, parenting classes, drug and alcohol abuse counseling, and treatment programs for sexual abuse and domestic violence.
According to Silberman, because Pennsylvania has a decentralized prison administrative system, the distinctive local traditions of older prisons such as Muncy can continue. A full-fledged correctional-industry sewing factory was opened on the premises in and this, at time when most of the US garment trade had moved overseas. The notion also persists that women who commit crimes are essentially victims of men, needy and emotionally dependent individuals who are driven to crime by their dependent natures.
On the day I toured Muncy I chatted with the officer giving the tour as we watched inmates playing with therapy dogs on the lawn; he confided his belief that almost all of the criminality of the Muncy women was a result of their association with corrupt men. Such gender stereotypes obviously require some deconstruction, particularly to the extent that they are embedded into the law e. Similar to the usable pasts of other institutions and sites, the Muncy prison, despite seeming to offer a more humanizing therapeutic rehabilitation model of incarceration, also denies agency to women inmates to an important extent.
But those stereotypes aside, the notion that Muncy incorporates living history in both its structure and philosophies of punishment is an important one. How we understand regime shifts in the carceral landscape is one of the crucial questions scholars struggle with, and I think the Muncy prison offers a good example of how we might stay attuned to a living past, the past in place, as we study those shifts.
And while some prison administrations offer ample opportunity to capture living memory, others work very hard to erase it, as my next example illustrates.
Study of Factors Making Space-Contaminated Optical System Unusable
As I noted above, the prisoner rights group I am affiliated with has lately shifted most of its attention to the Lewisburg federal penitentiary, located just outside the quaint little college town I live in. This recent dramatic shift in the use of space at the facility has resulted in five deaths, hundreds of assaults requiring [begin page 14] hospitalization, and thousands of letters to our organization from inmates who describe the torturous conditions inside that have now become the norm and which I have written about elsewhere.
When USP-Lewisburg was built in its architecture reflected an ideology of reform and rehabilitation of its 1, male inmates. The spatial configuration of the prison reflected the philosophy that both work and play were necessary for rehabilitation. The architect chose the rural Pennsylvania site ostensibly for the sunshine and fresh air available there, as well as for the available land on which inmates could farm poultry, dairy cattle, hay, corn, and other crops.
The prison interior also featured a number of spaces for reform within it: inmates participated in a variety of sports including basketball, baseball, long jump, boxing, and weight lifting; others were active in musical and theatrical groups that performed on the auditorium stage where big acts such as Louis Armstrong also performed ; inmates worked in the metal workshop; others produced a newspaper; and ten classrooms, a library, and reading room offered spaces for education, training, and religious services. By the s the discourse of reform completely lost traction within the federal [begin page 15] prison bureaucracy and in the courts, and stood in stark contrast to the norms and practices of everyday life inside penitentiary walls.
Ultimately, the Bureau addressed its problems through an increasing use of solitary confinement and permanent lockdown as a primary method of prison control. As I noted above, more than 75 percent of federal inmates are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes, typically for transporting drugs. This is important to keep in mind, since nearly all those incarcerated in maximum-security lockdown are isolated not for the crime that put them in prison in the first place, but for some infraction that happened during incarceration.
Lewisburg is the first and only maximum-security federal prison in the country today with an SMU program of its type. Community spaces such as exercise yards, sports courts, the communal dining room, the library, and theatre have been emptied. Five hours per week they are transferred to eight-by-ten foot recreation cages to exercise with six to eight other men.
The Bureau makes clear that the double celling practice is not due to overcrowding or economics. Even if cellmates are compatible—and we must ask, who would be or could be under these conditions?
Men co-exist in spaces so small that only one of them may walk in the cell at any given time. This seems especially the case given the context of the SMU and supermax facilities more generally, where the criminality at issue is a product of incarceration itself, created within the prison walls rather than on the outside. The violence self-perpetuates the institution, and indeed signals the need for additional facilities. Such dehumanizing practices are part of the fabric of prison life and always have been, but today, that alienation is going even further.
The present situation at Lewisburg is a serious concern. My research about it is situated as an historical geography of the modern to the late modern penitentiary form, in terms of both spatial tactics and penal philosophies. Moreover, although the use of prison space has been completely altered by the introduction of the SMU program, the physical structure and particularly the architecture of the prison stands as a constant reminder of former ideas and practices.
A number of local entities and practices are also involved in constructing a usable past for the institution. The Lewisburg Historical Society regularly publishes materials and hosts events about the beautiful historic architecture of the prison building, and its bell tower certainly serves as an inescapable historical-cultural icon in the region. The experiences and habits of guards and administrators of yesteryear are a constant source of conversation in ordinary settings—at [begin page 16] schools, supermarkets, hair salons, and in bars.
Where prisons are located now is a product of past spatial logics and priorities, which often emerged under different social, economic, and political circumstances. In the case of Lewisburg, the town fought hard for the prison as a panacea to growth during the Depression. The Bureau of Prisons was flooded with over one hundred applications for what was to become the Northeastern Federal Penitentiary, and Lewisburg was selected both for reasons already mentioned and also due to near unanimous support from the community including from the administration of Bucknell University.
And as is the case with the Lewisburg penitentiary and others like it, the spatial fixity and spatial legacy of the institution has created its own local geography with multiple and diverse spin-out effects for townspeople who now occupy a place specializing in prisons; as well as, of course, for prisoners and their families who typically are from long distances away. These locational issues of the past have so much present relevance, and are very hard to undo.
Despite the complaints and lawsuits piling up that contest current practices, however, the prison administration remains very proud of the institution and its history, and particularly of its famous inmates. These include Mafia bosses and labor and other leaders connected to them Jimmy Hoffa, John Gotti ; but also famous civil rights activists and political prisoners such as Alger Hiss, and Philip and Daniel Berrigan ; and suspected terrorists and drug kingpins.
Their histories pop up in a number of books and films though, including a Academy Award nominated documentary entitled, Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House. At the time of this writing, a segment from their work, Rap About Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary , is available on YouTube, and I would encourage those interested to watch and listen. However, while specific carceral techniques might be expressed differently across the American landscape, no place in the country has been untouched by the current trends in mass incarceration.
Just up the road from the Steinauer jail I discussed above is the new Nebraska State Penitentiary in Tecumseh , which advertises through billboards all the job opportunities opening up for so many displaced by the more recent decline of the rural farm economy. This is [begin page 17] where we are and this is what, in turn, requires intervention and the exercise of civil liberties on behalf of inmates. There are many options for doing so, particularly for educators.
I would like to conclude then with some thoughts about using media or art in constructing a usable carceral past. Here I want to return to Angola. Wallace and Albert Woodfox were first subjected to solitary confinement in , following the killing of a twenty-three year old prison guard. This political affiliation also accounts for their seemingly permanent stay in solitary confinement.
Figure 5. Related to this film screening, LPP partnered with some Bucknell students to build a life- size, six-by-nine foot prison cell that was displayed in the student center for several days prior to the film showing, and then moved to the theatre the night of the event. The installation gave the students and broader community a chance to experience something of the environment of solitary confinement—a deliberate remembrance for Herman Wallace and others subjected to that particular torture. Meanwhile another group of students created a film about the building and installation of the cell, and interviewed students who had spent time in it.
The whole experience was an important intervention in town politics. It also helped students and others explore issues in our criminal justice system, the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and I think, ultimately, how the creative process of art can be used to initiate positive change and greater understanding of social justice issues. We are all going to make a difference; the question is, what kind of difference do we want to make?
Too much evidence
I am also most grateful to Maria Lane and Imogen Ainsworth for graciously seeing this into production under a new system, and really for all Maria has done more generally on behalf of Historical Geography this past year. Those seeking to offer this complexity to society have always faced a struggle. This challenge is revealed in the public arena. These manifestations of history seek to offer a usable past to the nation as a whole, but as they do so they subsume important aspects of the national past under the larger story of American consensus.
What then should be the history presented in the public arena? It is, of course, both. Questions of balance are paramount at the Smithsonian Institution, as curators, historians, and others wrestle with how best to interpret this important theme in American history. Of course, telling the story of how the United States became a modern, industrial, capitalistic society is a worthy goal. That the United States has long been a place where all may excel in their business of choice regardless of where they came from is a powerful statement of an ideal.
This ideal, however, is only the beginning point of a narrative more valuable for the future: one in which the nation has both succeeded and failed in the past. Curator Tom D. The controversy over the exhibit became so desperate that it led to public humiliation for the Smithsonian Institution in , an overturning of a planned complex exhibit in favor of a simple presentation of the aircraft, a legacy of self-censorship among the museum's staff, and the resignation of the museum's director.
Would Americans have been better served by pondering the consequences of dropping the atomic bomb or by celebrating American victory? The resolution of these kinds of debates will significantly shape future conceptions of these issues in the American past and affect ideas about them going forward.
Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say
We should not portray a serene yesterday; nor should we neglect the social realities of the present Figure 4. Courtesy of bridgeandtunnelclub. A simplistic understanding of the past creates an unfair and impossible totem against which to judge current leaders, thereby further distorting a perception that modern society is unable to cope with its ills.
Ignoring the complexity of the past, with all of its positive and negative aspects, does a disservice to Americans of all stripes. Let me suggest three points to consider when tackling the interpretation of historical events, people, and arcs of time in our search for a usable past:. Meanings: History is anything but names, dates, and events. Americans tend toward historylessness because the past that survives in the present is too often little more than either moral lessons or a tapestry of injustices. In both cases it leads to false impressions. Nuance: In the historian Van Wyck Brooks first called for the development of an American usable past.
His comments are still germane as we seek to apprehend an American history that is complex and conflicted rather than heroic and homogenized. We want expansion of soul, and we have an elephantiasis of the vocal organs. Nuance is the essence both of history and of life. Communicate: An important element of practicing history is the marshalling of resources of historical scholarship for public understanding. The past only becomes usable for the public when historians, teachers, curators, and others effectively communicate it.
In more than one neighborhood, teenagers have acted as historians by interviewing elders about their experiences and collecting information about the community's recent past. Students might even incorporate informal education—such as displays, videos, and even dramatic reenactments—into everything from the local historical society to the community shopping mall.
Such possibilities are endless and all relate to how historical perspectives might become more a part of everyone's everyday lives. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Cohen of McGill University in the preparation of this article.
- Peas & Queues: The Minefield of Modern Manners.
- The History of the Sevarambians: A Utopian Novel?
- New Accents: Unusable Past (Volume 39).
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Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume Article Contents. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Figure 1. View large Download slide. Figure 2. Figure 3. Figure 4. This concept has been used in many different settings. For the classic essay that lays out the basic contours of the idea, see Henry Steele Commager. Washington, D. Pisano, Thomas J. Dietz, and Joanne M. The exhibit of George Washington's home in Philadelphia made clear that he brought several slaves with him to Philadelphia in and rotated them back and forth between the capital city and his Virginia plantation, Mt.
Vernon, to avoid the gradual emancipation laws of Pennsylvania that declared free any slaves who resided in the state for more than six months. New York, ; and Edward G. The debates over the United States as a Christian nation have become intense in the last decade. Efforts to buttress or debunk arguments on either side have been fierce. Examples of some of this work on each side include David Barton. Among other works, see Richard Brookhiser.
There is a massive body of literature on this subject. The book-length works include. O'Reilly and William A. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals. Issue Section:.
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