To mark this eventful school year, DAAS celebrates the achievements of our students, alumni, faculty and staff in stride with the obstacles they have overcome. To share these achievements with a wider audience, we’ve decided to begin a spotlight series to highlight those special members of our community who are doing important work in the world around us, and spreading academic and socially conscious excellence wherever they go.
Nora Krinitsky is the interim director of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) and current director of the Carceral State Project, a research initiative to highlight historic and contemporary voices of the incarcerated and the communities most affected by incarceration. She is also a lecturer in the Residential College, teaching the next generation of Black and Carceral Studies students here at Michigan. Over the pandemic, Krinitsky has worked to counter many challenges with both projects, as the COVID-19 crisis in many prisons has unfolded. I spoke to her a few weeks ago about these challenges and her hopes for growth in the future within each of her communities.
I'm really excited to speak with you because I know that there are so many things happening in incarcerated communities right now, and having your perspective on that is going to be really great to have some insight for our newsletter. So I'm really excited about that. But I think my first question would probably be, I would ask you to give a little bit of background about yourself and what you've been doing with the Carceral Project and PCAP and what those projects entail right now.
Nora Krinitsky, Director of the Carceral State Project:
Yeah! So my name is Nora Krinitsky, I’m the interim director of the Prison Creative Arts Project and the project director of the Carceral State Project. So lots of projects in there. I'm also a lecturer in the residential college and I am a historian of US history and criminal justice, the carceral state and African-American history. So that’s my perspective coming at these issues.
So with the Carceral State Project, we’re now entering our third year in its current iteration. Over the past year, we have been working on our major research initiative, which is called Documenting Criminalization and Confinement. So this is a project that has a lot of different smaller project teams involved, but our overarching goal is to document the human cost of incarceration and criminalization in the United States, then use those stories to really advocate for change and justice.
Like I said, there are many different smaller project teams that are all working on some iteration of that question; we have teams that are working on the history of policing, groups that are working on the conditions of confinement in our prisons and jails, working on immigration and the impacts of ICE raids and other kinds of policing in mixed status communities. And then there are others thinking about things like how carceral logic can affect view. Our culture, our discourses, the words we use, the images we use. So it’s a really wide-ranging project and we’re especially grateful that DAAS has been a wonderful home for this project.
PCAP is, you know, the other hat I wear and also very related to the work that the Carceral Project does. PCAP does have a wide variety of creative arts programming inside Michigan prisons and one of the major projects that the Carceral State Project is working on is documenting and collecting and preserving incarcerated peoples’ creative expression. Visual art, writing, other kinds of creativity and expression that happen inside prisons. So that’s a really crucial link between the two programs.
This year, both of these initiatives have had to adjust, as everyone has to be remote. What we normally do is that we have weekly creative arts workshops inside prisons, which we’re not doing -- we haven’t been able to go to a prison since March. Instead, we’ve been doing a version of those workshops through correspondence. So facilitators on the outside create artistic prompts each week that we mail or send inside to participants. So it’s preserved some continuity in our programming, but obviously, all of the conditions that are happening inside right now are really disruptive. The (Detroit) Free Press published a piece this morning about COVID in prison and they currently have the highest number of active cases inside that they’ve had over the whole pandemic. We tried to maintain some stability with programming, but things inside are just really incredibly chaotic right now.
I can imagine. Especially with the current project, because it seems to be more of a research-based project, has the pandemic shifted your prerogatives with interviewing and document collecting? Has it revealed anything interesting, or, how have you had to shift what you’re already doing?
There’s definitely been some shifting of what we’re already doing. I mean, collecting peoples’ accounts of what’s been happening inside during COVID is something that we have also prioritized. Especially in the early months, we had a lot of folks who were writing to us with their stories of what was happening inside which is really crucial to get out because it’s unlikely that we would hear those kinds of accounts from the MDOC. That’s what has been kind of a new development, certainly since the pandemic started. Other things have had to change; our oral history project had to shift to doing interviews remotely, which is not ideal but I’m glad it’s possible. So that’s been a shift.
We’re working on an oral history project that I and Professor Heather Thompson are leading to collect oral histories of people who’ve experienced incarceration or other kinds of confinement. For now, in the state, but we hope to grow it more broadly than that. One of our major research initiatives involved corresponding with people inside and asking them to write accounts of their experiences in prison and answer some questions. We’ve experienced -- especially over the past six months or so -- a lot of those materials not getting delivered to our recipients. So, this is something that can happen with residents, where getting stuff out of the walls is a challenge. But that is a challenge that we will continue to navigate.
I think my biggest question about that is probably how you are collecting materials at this point, because, I think we’re really relying on the digital landscape here, but inside it’s a completely different situation. So have you had to rely on completely analog methods like letter writing or email?
The thing is, we were relying on letter writing from the start. So I guess, interestingly enough, that hasn’t exactly changed in the pandemic. That’s always how we were reaching out to folks inside and how we were receiving materials from them. So that’s always been the primary way, through the mail. But, you know, there have been disruptions to the mail inside. Staffing is really chaotic in prison right now, there’s an added level of scrutiny on mail going in and out of the prisons. But one unanticipated challenge that we faced in the summer was the campus shut-down. We couldn’t get our mail. So it was interesting, how you were saying, that the pandemic kind of shifted things and the impact fell more at the University than the prisons.
We are so used to relying on electronic communication, but we really needed to get our mail. For the Carceral Project specifically, our mail gets delivered to Hatcher Library. So I’m really grateful to the facility staff there who worked with me and I am able to go and pick up our mail once a week. I think with this kind of project it’s often about finding folks like that who can work with you and help keep systems running, even if we’re in a really unusual time. So actually I think more disruption came on this end than the other.
Especially with so much breaking news coming from these letters, there are all these tales from the inside. Have you been looking at it as a purely academic study or a Black Studies project? Are you working with journalists? What is the main goal of collecting right now, like, if you were made aware of something, what would you do with that information?
A couple different things. One of the overarching goals of the project from the start has been to create a record of these stories that can be used by journalists or scholars in the future. So with regard to that piece, we’re working on creating a digital database that could be accessed by folks. More immediately our website has a number of publications that have been created from the materials we’ve gathered so far and other partnerships. Just to speak to the immediacy piece, earlier this summer we partnered with the American Friends Service Committee to write a white paper about COVID-19 so this included many different quotes and voices of people who are experiencing the inside right now, along with policy recommendations, alternatives, ways that things could be done that are not currently being followed. With regard to that, what we’re really wanting to do is try and have an immediate impact on how COVID is being addressed inside right now.
Clara Scott:I’m not a historian, so can you explain the concept of a white paper, because from what I’ve heard it’s kind of like a press release.
Surely, so a white paper you will likely encounter in policy, history or sociology and oftentimes it is a cross between a scholarly paper and a policy memo or policy recommendation. So a paper that gives an overview of whatever situation it’s addressing that brings in a review of something like relevant academic literature but then makes recommendations, particularly in areas of public policy about what should be done to address the issue. So it’s almost like a more public-facing academic paper, but what we tried to do with ours was make it really accessible to the public. So we had a wonderful graphic designer who designed the report and used some of the art by PCAP artists to illustrate it. So we both have the literal voices of people via their words, but also other ways of expressing themselves as well.
No, that’s great. A lot of my friends and roommates volunteer with PCAP because I am in the Residential College, so I’m familiar with the proces. Do you ever think that you’ll go completely back to in person?
We’ve put a lot of work into this correspondence program. So I’m hopeful that we could continue that correspondence in some capacity, especially because we’re able to do that with prisons that are too far to travel to on a weekly basis. But being in person is really crucial for the mission of PCAP, that’s really where we follow through on our mission to create community between people who are incarcerated, people who are impacted by the justice system in other ways and the University community. But yes, we are fully and completely committed to being back in person as soon as it’s safe to do so.
I think it’s probably the case that students have found this with their online classes right now, that there’s something different about being in the room together, and I especially find this because I teach subjects like African-American history and the histories of state violence and policing. One thing I really miss about being in the classroom is just being able to sit together with these difficult topics, even if no one wants to answer a question. But it is still valuable to sit together with the information and there’s something similar that happens in PCAP workshops even if folks have had a week that’s super challenging and they’re not feeling creative. Just being in that space together is one of the foundational things for sure.
Clara Scott:Yeah, that human contact is just so important.
Yeah, and I mean that’s one of the things that our weekly workshops do. We also visit each prison every year to select art for the art show, and I think it's really important how the presence of PCAP work literally transforms the space of the prison. A room that was a visiting room or a gym becomes an art fair for a few hours or a performance space. I don't think I can overstate how important that the ability to transform that space is, you know, it can become transformed from a space of confinement and oppression. I don't want to overstate our impact because we can't fully take away the oppressive nature of prison, but these can become spaces where people feel lifted up, feel empowered to speak, feel empowered to express themselves. So yeah, going back is really pivotal.
Just the enrichment of having other things to do is so important, there are such limited options inside that it’s just so important to have those other enrichment options.
Yeah, options. And I think that provides the very human feeling of having something to look forward to. I think we’ve all experienced that this year, how limiting and painful that can be when you don’t have those things to anticipate.
Time moves so weirdly in quarantine. I think it’s interesting to hear that you have been teaching other classes this year. How have you worked with DAAS to create the Carceral Project, and how do you think it’s supported by viewing material through a Black Studies lens, or even just with cultural awareness in general? How do those things merge in your perspective?
That’s a great question. In a logistical manner, DAAS has been incredibly critical to doing any of the operations of this project. For our first year, before our research project began, we did a year-long symposium. That was really successful, it was six different events about the carceral state and highlighting different themes, and especially foregrounded the voices of people who are not members of the University or don’t have an official connection to the University.
As someone who does a lot of events and administration, it sounds silly, but just having the amazing DAAS staff to help run those just made it all possible. I can’t say enough about the magnificent Elizabeth James. One thing I think a lot about is these topics of criminalization, confinement and incarceration and how not foregrounding the Black experience with them is an enormous oversight. But I would say also that the way that our home at DAAS has shaped the project is that when I think about Black Studies or African-American Studies, it is always interdisciplinary because that is the only way we can fully understand the Black experience.
Black people have been excluded from some of the other kinds of narratives, so we think about that with regard to collecting oral histories or written letters. Those voices are not ones that we’re going to find in, for example, some of the archives that are at the Bentley. So the Bentley (Historical Library) has amazing stuff for understanding the prison boom in Michigan, they have governors’ papers and other policymakers’ materials that are super important to our project. But there are other voices that are not there, and I think that approach to scholarly questions is one that Black Studies has been doing for 70, 80 years now. So having that approach to these questions is so important for us.
It’s not only interdisciplinary, it’s intersectional. I applaud you for all your work and I am so happy to have spoken with you about your work this year.