“This Used To Be a Black College”: Narratives of Deprivation and Agency in A Kansas Women’s Correctional Facility
Swanson, Jenna Maria Christian D'Ottavio
University of Kansas
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In 1897 African-American educators in Kansas opened the state’s second black college as part of a broader initiative to bring educational and economic opportunities to black communities in the wake of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896). By the 1970s the campus was converted to a women’s correctional facility. Today, it houses over 900 incarcerated women. This research explores how experiences of deprivation are brought to bear on incarcerated women of color in this college-turned-prison through phenomenological and structural violence approaches. While “deprivation” has become one of the most prevalent models used by prison officials to address disciplinary infractions among incarcerated populations, this work redefines deprivation as a punitive mechanism that differentially affects people of color inside and outside of prison. Based on nine months of fieldwork in the women’s prison, and several narratives collected from incarcerated women, I retrace the process of becoming deprived to show how communities lose access to their individual and collective contexts over time, and how they work to recover these histories, from a space of confinement. I examine how women of color go about reasserting their histories, accessing inclusive rehabilitative opportunities, and constructing alternative historical narratives from within a space of deprivation. My work weaves the narratives together with a critical analysis of the American carceral state to tell a story about human suffering in the aftermath of the failed “era of rehabilitation,” which has seen an escalation in the policing of communities of color and a steady withdrawal of funding and support for education and rehabilitation. I argue that deprivation is not isolated or restricted to instances of discipline within the prison. Rather, it is a process that begins to unfold long before women enter the prison and is compounded and transformed by the conditions of imprisonment, especially among women of color.
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