History and United States prison policy: an interview with Dr Heather Ann Thompson (Part I)

By Jess Hope

As a glance at the profiles of this blog team will show, ‘doing history in public’ reflects a goal of making our practices as historians more transparent, collaborative and accessible. Many historians I’ve spoken with also hope to demonstrate that their research matters to the public, and that it has important political, economic or social implications for the way the world works today. Still others—and I would count myself in this category—feel that there has occasionally been a breakdown in communication between historians and those whose work might be informed by historical knowledge, including journalists, activists and policy-makers.

Dr Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at Temple University, Pennsylvania, whose research frequently intersects with public debate on mass incarceration in the United States. She has published an article in The Atlantic, sits on a National Academy of Sciences panel on prisons and speaks regularly on the topic at conferences and institutions. I recently asked Heather a few questions about what it means to move history beyond academia and into the world of popular media and public policy. The second part of our discussion will follow next week.

Could you briefly describe how you came to work on mass incarceration, and when it was that you realised the current social, economic and political implications of your research?

I came to this issue, I suspect, the way many do which is by complete accident. Suddenly it began to occur to me that there was an incredible number of people in prison in the United States—so many in fact, that without anyone paying much attention, more and more public resources were going into the criminal justice system and not into things like schools. In short, it was as if I could suddenly see the elephant that had always been in the room!

Meanwhile I was working on a book about prisoner rights and a massive uprising in 1971 for better conditions at the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York. How could it be, I wondered, that in 1971 Americans were talking about expanding rights for prisoners, and yet in the subsequent 40 years they instead built the world’s largest and most punitive prison system? Why was it, I wondered, that the 1970s was such a turning point in American history? Why was it a decade that, Janus-like, both reflected the possibilities of the civil rights Sixties and at the same time forecasted and laid the groundwork for the conservative backlash of the Eighties and beyond? To sort this all out—exactly why and how it was that America embraced such a punitive penal system after the 1960s—led me to write the piece Why Mass Incarceration Matters, and to begin to speak publicly about the consequences of the punitive turn in U.S. justice policy for American cities, the U.S. economy, and the very democracy that Americans hold dear.

You’ve spoken on mass incarceration in the press, on public radio and social media, at talks all over the United States and as a panel member on prison policy for the National Academy of Sciences. What have been some of the benefits and challenges of bringing a historical approach to these public discussions?

Again, as a historian, getting the opportunity to speak publicly and to write for popular publications was wonderful but initially very daunting to me. I had always believed that the reason to study history was that it informed the present and the future, but frankly, as a historian I had come to speak only to my own colleagues and students about the past, and rarely did any historian I know intervene in present day discussions about policy or politics. Firstly, I had to think about how to write in a very different way. I had to think hard about how I might locate the historical roots of a modern-day phenomenon when there was no time for hundreds of footnotes and no need to address historiographical debates. That wasn’t easy, especially since as historians we are trained to give ten examples for every major point we make and footnote everything within an inch of its life! So I had to think hard about how to choose the more illustrative and graphic examples right up front, and just as important, to cut to the chase about why a past event mattered to the present day issue being discussed. Needless to say, all of this was a challenge for me. One must be bold and just say what one thinks in a popular publication or venue (and indeed, one would never be invited back if one dithered or got lost in excessive detail!) and yet one also has really to have done one’s historical homework to be at all useful to that present day discussion. The information on which one bases one’s popular statements must be solid and substantial.

The benefits of bringing history into popular discussions, however, are vast. It turns out that folks have an enormous interest in how we got where we are today and they are eager to read whatever they can about that. I can honestly say that writing for popular venues, as well as doing radio shows, has been very rewarding. I feel that making history matter is a good thing and I am gratified that venues such as the Atlantic Monthly now care what historians have to say.

In Part II next week: Heather speaks on the perils of writing about the recent past and the impact of public engagement on her scholarly work.

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