Michigan State University is working in partnership with “States of Incarceration,” a national traveling exhibit that focuses on the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States, to create a panel to contribute to the exhibit, which will be installed at the Michigan History Center in early 2019.
The Department of History is a co-sponsor of the exhibit and as a direct result of the partnership, Histories of The Carceral State, taught by associate professor LaShawn Harris, was offered to students in the fall.
“The class is seminar style,” said Sean Wright, MSU graduate student and Harris’ teaching assistant. “A lot of the students are very prepared to talk when they come to class. They’re doing something very public, too, which makes it that much more interesting than other classes.”
The class focuses on the history of cultural and leisure activities at prison facilities. The students are looking at Jackson State Penitentiary in particular and are working with the Citizens for Prison Reform in Lansing.
“This class is different in that we are engaging directly with persons who are incarcerated,” Harris said. “We’re part of this national dialogue about what confinement means and what it looks like nationally, but also within a local context.”
The class’ panel will look at the different types of formal and informal rehabilitation programs that Jackson State Penitentiary offered from 1900 to the 1940s. It will consist of several photos and primary source documents to provide a visual aspect. The panel will also include about 100 words describing recreation at Michigan prisons, including formal programs such as art, music and sports programs.
Apart from creating the panel, students are working in pairs to create their own online projects about incarceration as part of a website made at the MSU Leadr Lab.
Through their research, the students have found several images of incarcerated men along with drawings, poetry and newsletters created by the men who served time at Jackson State Penitentiary.
Sports teams, musical bands and art programs were created by the penal institution and produced locally and nationally known athletes and artists.
“We have all of these different things that suggest that rehabilitation, either formally or informally, forge a sense of creativity for some, not all,” Harris said. “This is something that certain prison officials at that time thought would be good for their rehabilitation. Prison is not a place just for confinement and punishment, but punishment, if you will, can be rehabilitative too.”
Leisure activities helped to foster a sense of pleasure and creativity, empowerment, ingenuity, self-discovery and relaxation for the incarcerated men.
According to Harris, this project is a collaborative one.
Michael Stamm, graduate director of the Department of History, originally brought the project to the department and to Harris. Several people within MSU and the groups the class has partnered with have also played a part in creating the panel.
“Many people have hands in this process,” Harris said. “I’m one of many folks here who are making this possible. This project is a labor of love by a lot of people on a very important issue.”