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Mary Heinen McPherson spent most of her adult life in prison. She recounts her story in audio clips for Incarcerated Body, Liberated Mind, an interactive oral history created by LSA junior Noor Moughni for the Carceral State Project.
Incarcerated Body, Liberated Mind is the first in a planned series of oral histories from the Carceral State Project’s Confronting Conditions of Confinement research team. According to Megan Wilson, the graduate student supervising the effort, the goal of the oral history project is to document the stories and share the voices of those who have personal experience with incarceration. They also aim to destigmatize conversations about incarceration to heighten public awareness of the interrelatedness of punishment, surveillance, and systemic racism, and to encourage decarceration.
Noor presents McPherson’s account as a multimedia story map. As the story unfolds, Noor examines how the details of McPherson’s imprisonment correspond to broader human rights considerations of incarceration; among them the systems that put (and keep) individuals in prison, rampant public health and safety hazards, and the lasting trauma of confinement. The result is a multi-dimensional narrative of McPherson’s story that humanizes incarceration.
McPherson was the bright, oldest child of seven raised by two hard-working, professional parents on a leafy street in Flint, Michigan. But the family was afflicted with alcoholism and mental illness. Noor deftly weaves anecdotes about McPherson’s close-knit middle class childhood with research about how these diseases can affect children and lead to a lifetime of contact with the carceral state.
“I wanted to tell Mary’s story, which in itself is so amazing,” noted Noor. “But I also wanted it to be informational about the carceral state and mass incarceration, about the wide variety of circumstances that can lead to incarceration and what really happens inside prisons. I saw that her story could be the starting point of a discussion about so many important ideas and issues.”
McPherson talks about what it was like to not only endure inhumane conditions inside prison, but also to persevere. While incarcerated, she made lifelong friends, earned multiple college degrees, co-founded LSA’s acclaimed Prison Creative Arts Project (known as PCAP, and now also affiliated with the Carceral State Project), and was a jailhouse lawyer. Early in her incarceration, in 1979, she and seven of her peers filed (and won) a class action suit, Glover v. Johnson, against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) to fight for funding and access to prison education and legal counsel for incarcerated women. She’s been out of prison for nearly twenty years, and now lives with her wife Melnee near the U-M campus, where she continues her work with PCAP as an “ARTivist” for women surviving prison.
“It gives me hope to know that academics with groups like Carceral State, PCAP, and Nation Outside [in Detroit], are working to educate people about what’s happening,” said McPherson during her interview. “To record it for history…in the same way that [oral histories from] the Civil War [were] recorded.”
Enabling students to leave a legacy
According to Carceral State Project Director Nora Krinitsky, the term carceral state refers to institutions of confinement like jails, detention centers, and prisons, and also includes a wide range of policies, practices, and systems that scrutinize individuals and communities both before and after their contact with the criminal justice system.
Noor found the Carceral State Project through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) when she was a first year student. She’s always wanted to go to law school, though she isn’t sure what kind of law she wants to practice, and she figured that the research would help her gain a working knowledge of the criminal justice system. It’s been a far more powerful experience than she expected. The work has proven especially relevant over the past year, as fatal police shootings have shone a spotlight on policing and justice in the United States. The public seems more aware and open to thinking about, confronting, and making changes to the carceral state.
“In the summer, during the protests following Breonna Taylor's and George Floyd’s murders, I realized the research I’d been doing is so valuable and important. It’s connecting me to all these things that are happening right now,” said Noor.
The Confronting Conditions of Confinement oral histories will join other primary materials, documents, and testimonials in a permanent Carceral State Project database. The publications are meant to be a resource for policymakers, journalists, legal professionals, and activists, organizers, and advocates.
The opportunity to contribute in such a cooperative and enduring way can have a profound impact on students, whatever career they choose to pursue. Noor expects to complete her undergraduate degree in middle eastern studies and philosophy (with a minor in art and design) in 2022, while Megan is pursuing her Ph.D. in classical studies.
“This project has helped me bridge the gap between my strictly research-based prior experience and a more community-focused path ahead,” said Megan. “It inspired a change in my plans for the future, and started me down the path to what I hope leads to a career in advocacy.”
Demystifying the carceral state
The Carceral State Project, established in 2016, is an interdisciplinary collaboration between impacted communities and advocacy organizations and University of Michigan researchers and students. Its aim is to study and address the current issues and collateral consequences of mass incarceration, policing, and immigration detention, and to work towards more just responses to the safety concerns and social needs in communities where incarceration is common.
The Carceral State Project’s Documenting Criminalization and Confinement (DCC) research initiative was launched in summer 2019, and now includes seven main component projects--the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, Confronting Conditions of Confinement, Documenting Prison Education and Arts (aligned with the Prison Creative Arts Project), Critical Carceral Visualities, Afterlives of Conviction, ICE in the Heartland, and Immigrant Justice Lab. Each team includes a mix of undergraduate and graduate students and an LSA faculty member. Many of the Carceral State research teams also include one or more formerly incarcerated community members.
“The research teams are doing meaningful, interdisciplinary research that combines the arts, social sciences, and humanities,” said Krinitsky. “Each field is equally valuable.”
Built on the cross-disciplinary efforts of several LSA departments, including the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, the Department of History, and the Residential College, as well as the U-M School of Public Health, numerous aspects of the program set it apart from prison studies programs at other United States universities. One is the de-centered, inverted research model that empowers students and community members to develop and lead projects that document the true nature of incarceration from primary sources.
The scope and volume of student-authored publications on policing and incarceration is unique to U-M. Over one hundred students have been involved in gathering evidence for a robust DCC database that will provide critical information for anyone engaged in the work of dismantling the system of criminalization and incarceration and aiding affected communities.
Another distinguishing factor in this work is PCAP’s partnership with all 27 MDOC prison facilities in the state. The strong and sustained MDOC partnership is a result of the longevity of the highly respected Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), which grew from a single theatre workshop within one Michigan correctional facility more than thirty years ago, into courses that train U-M students to facilitate prison arts workshops, a globally recognized annual exhibit of prisoners’ art, and the Linkage Project reentry program for citizens returning from incarceration.
With attention on the systemic issues of incarceration and policing in the United States intensifying, the Carceral State Project is seeking financial support to build upon the progress of their work. Donor contributions would help to expand the scope of cross-disciplinary academic research on which policymakers, advocacy groups, and legal professionals rely. Funding for visiting research fellows, graduate research assistants, and additional undergraduate students meet the demand for this critical information.
For more information about Carceral State Project funding opportunities, please contact Andrea Stevenson (firstname.lastname@example.org).