It was a June morning when I got out of my car and walked towards the barbed wire and concrete of the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security men’s prison in central Illinois. The guards behind the plate-glass windows cleared me through the six mechanical locked doors to enter the facility. I walked past the dining hall on my right and the cell-houses on my left towards the education building. Finally, I reached the classroom where I was holding a mock dissertation defense with a committee comprised of 15 incarcerated men.
The men were college-level students taking classes through the University of Illinois’s Education Justice Project, where I volunteered as a tutor for two years. They graciously gathered as a group to read and critique a significant portion of my dissertation, “Re-institutionalizing America: The Politics of Mental Health and Incarceration in America, 1945-1985.” The project explored the history of confinement in the state mental health system, where involuntary commitments were used on a massive scale until the 1970s.
But why would I possibly hold a second defense when even the first one had frayed my nerves enough?!
The period of time after finishing a dissertation offers a perfect opportunity to gather feedback in order to strengthen the project for the book revisions. As a public historian, I wanted to hear the critiques of these students in particular. While I write about the politics of confinement, I have not myself experienced it. I wanted to hear the perspectives of men in prison, who did not have their liberty, even if they haven’t had experiences in the mental health system, the focus of my study.
While not all of them agreed about my work, a few key shared critiques emerged. A number of them argued that I needed to integrate the perspective of the patients into my work more. From their experience, society often undervalues the voices of incarcerated people. The Education Justice Project has even created Education Justice Radio, a program of student reports that broadcasts weekly on WRFU and online. Because the program showcases the voices of people behind bars, that perspective bled into their critiques. They urged me to work harder to include such voices in my book.
Second, the men saw a number of economic connections between incarceration in state mental health institutions and prisons that I had not drawn out enough. Contemporary state governments (and the predominantly rural towns where those institutions often reside) rely on prison jobs and income today just as they had relied on the massive mental health hospitals for income and jobs during that earlier era. The inmates themselves live with the economic implications of the prison system every day. For instance, they spend their time next to the guards and administrative staff from the rural Illinois region whose main livelihood comes from their incarceration. They understand all too intimately the economics of state institutions and their deep value to many communities across America, a point I did not explore enough.
In addition to critiques drawn from the men’s own lived experience, it was also valuable to present my work to them because they are deeply interested in the history of confinement. This history is particularly important to them because they live the practice of mass incarceration on a day-to-day basis. They challenged me to not just write for an academic audience but for a public one as well, so that today’s practice of imprisonment could be better understood and reformed. Public historians have long had a commitment to opening up research to popular audiences and to communities most affected by that history.
Many colleges and universities are increasingly valuing community engagement as a part of research and scholarship. Public historians have long been interested in the practice of public engagement. This dissertation defense behind bars stresses how the concept of public engagement does not just have to apply to seasoned scholars. Instead, it can have meaning for graduate student work as well. Young scholars can connect with the communities their work speaks to at an early stage, sharing their work and learning from the experiences of people affected by these issues.
~ Anne Parsons is Assistant Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she teaches Public History and studies the history of confinement.