The Law and Society Association’s Dissertation Prize is awarded annually to a dissertation written within 12 months of the prize year that best represents outstanding law and society scholarship. This year’s winner is Amanda Hughett, for “Silencing the Cell Block: The Making of Modern Prison Policy in North Carolina and the Nation,” (PhD 2017, History, Duke University).
Hughett's dissertation “Silencing the Cell Block: The Making of Modern Prison Policy in North Carolina and the Nation” has a wonderful manner of examining and writing about historical sources. Reading “Silencing the Cell Block” is to have history come alive. The chapters are beautifully titled and there is a storytelling element in her writing despite the gravity of the legal analysis included in the chapters. Hughett intricately interweaves law into the narrative, exemplifying how masterfully a law and society work may engage law’s myriad impacts. Shen draws the reader in immediately by providing a twist on the rights litigation literature. Showing the irony behind constitutionalism, Hughett demonstrates how it subverts true prisoners’ rights reforms. Hughett’s historical and legal archival research is expansive and impressive, including sources ranging from state reports from the 1890s to prisoner civil rights cases spanning over a century to letters from activists and attorneys in the critical decades of the 1970s-1990s to personal interviews. Hughett is an extraordinary legal historian, clearly documenting change over time in the field of prisoner rights with painstaking archival research while simultaneously providing an original reading of the impact of such well-intentioned legal advocacy as actually limiting activists seeking more substantive change within prisons. Hughett takes a critical but sympathetic lens on the minutely administrative forms of legal redress that may otherwise be easy to see as straightforward victories, and highlights the secondary silencing impacts on more radical prisoner movements that were attempting to emerge at the same time. This work incisively exposes the contradictions in rights work. This dissertation makes an immediate and important contribution to the field.Dr. Hughett is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Baldy Center, State University of New York at Buffalo.