Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Post: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Incarceration

[We are very grateful to Smita Ghosh, JD, Class of 2014, and PhD Candidate, American Legal History, at the University of Pennsylvania, for this report!]

Last week I went up to Columbia University’s Heyman Center for an interdisciplinary conference on incarceration in America.  I thought the focus on “confinement” would gel with my interest in immigration detention (and if confinement’s not your bag, the conference focused on “mobility” as well).  I I’m certainly glad I went.   The gathering was organized by Hidetaka Hirota, who presented his work on immigration enforcement in the early 1900s at the Annual Meeting of ASLH last year.  I wanted to share some impressions on the conference to those LHB readers who are interested in the topic but for whatever reason couldn’t be confined there.
The first panel on Imprisonment and Poverty, chaired by Samuel Roberts (who presented his work on heroin treatment in New York at Penn last week).  Julily Kohler-Hausmann oriented historians of the ‘70s to the growth of the criminal justice provisions within the welfare state, tracking the growth of fraud penalties in state-level welfare laws.  Reuben J. Miller presented a study of the barriers that impede former prisoners as they “re-enter” society, and argued that reentry programs require conformity to the role of willing and repentant participant in order to access services.  Kristin Turney’s presentation suggested that parents and children experience extreme emotional and financial strain after mothers are incarcerated, and that this impact is especially high among children whose parents lived together before the mother’s incarceration.

The second panel on arresting and detaining migrants had two speakers--unfortunately Kelly Lytle Hernandez, who is working on a study of settler colonialism and incarceration in LA, was unable to make it.  Emily Ryo presented a study of legal attitudes among immigrant detainees (drawn from the Immigrant Detention Study she is doing with Caitlin Patler).   She revealed that migrant detainees find legal rules to be arbitrary, punitive and inscrutable by design.  Juliet Stumpf used family detention to show how developments in other forms of law can migrate  to immigration law.  One example: advocates have tried to use state childcare licensing laws to improve--or end--family detention in Texas.

In the third panel, “The War on Drugs, The War on Terror,” two historians--Donna Murch and Elizabeth Hinton--presented research on the mobilization and expansion of local law enforcement via federal subsidies in the 1960s and ’70s.  Their work, which drew from Murch’s forthcoming study of Los Angeles and Hinton’s new book, would be of interest to those who attended “Crime, Punishment, and Federalism: The Curious Case of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration” at the ALSH annual meeting last year, which featured commentary from Hinton as well).  Finally, the conference ended with Michel Welch’s assessment of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Journal.  The document, he argues, presents a glimpse of American culture at its most perverse.