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

by Jess Hope

Last week we published the first of a two-part interview with Dr Heather Ann Thompson, whose research on the history of mass incarceration has frequently contributed to debates about prison policy in the United States. Addressing post-war urban crisis, the decline of the labour movement and the rightward shift in political power over the last few decades, her work illustrates the damaging impact of a punitive prison policy on a purportedly democratic political system. Its appearance in publications such as The Atlantic also demonstrates how popular media can give voice to historical research in a way that broadens its purposes beyond the academic.

In the second part of our interview, I asked Heather for her thoughts about whether ‘doing history in public’ can in turn inform our own work as historians.

Has your public and policy engagement impacted the way you have approached historical research?

Well, for my scholarly research it hasn’t had any impact. There is no substitute for the years-long arduous research that goes into scholarly publications ranging from dissertations to articles to books. I have, however, had to learn how to conduct research much more efficiently and quickly for public and policy audiences. When on the National Academies panel, for example, I was asked to do a review of what historians had decided was the case about certain issues—quickly and without getting bogged down in historiographical debates. That was a challenge to be sure! It is not easy to jump into, say, the historical literature on prisons and quickly suss out the major contributions and thoughts that might be useful to policy considerations today. Similarly, when Time Magazine called me and wanted some historical background on conjugal visits and my thoughts on whether ending them today was a good or bad thing, I had to do some highly targeted research and do it quickly!

Again, though, the greatest way it changes research is it makes one very circumspect about which historical examples really are the best—the most moving or meaningful—to make a given point. You have to think hard about what really did shape the past if you are going to suggest to a present-day audience that where they sit today, the crisis they are facing now, really did stem in some profound way from that same past.

In an article for the American Historical Association, you described the ‘perilously recent past’ as both dangerous and necessary for historians to address. What role do you envision for historians—and what kinds of support do you think they might need—in navigating issues that have real moral and political implications for today?

It is necessary for the reasons I have already suggested here, but yes, it is also potentially dangerous in the sense that we have an enormous responsibility to get that past “right” and to understand it as it really was. In other words, once you draw from the past to inform the present, the exercise of writing history is no longer “academic”; it is no longer purely an intellectual or theoretical discussion. It is a discussion that might well shape decisions that voters make or inform laws passed by politicians. It is also potentially dangerous, as I suggested in the piece to which you refer, because when we write about more modern history we often uncover stories that, if revealed publicly, could potentially have effects that we never intended.

So I do think historians need to think harder than we yet do about the ways in which our work can impact the present—both the possibilities as well as potential perils of this. We should discuss this amongst ourselves as well as with our graduate students and together we should come up with some best-practice help and advice for one another, both in regards to navigating the task of writing about the past to shine more light on the present, and to writing about the more recent past (which is often very fraught since those who made that history might well still be alive). This all said, I think that historians make the best public intellectuals because they have been trained to be hyper-vigilant about the two single most important things one should have when speaking about the present—perspective and context.

Dr Heather Ann Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the Department of African American Studies and Department of History at Temple University, Philadelphia. Her previous works include Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City (Cornell University Press, 2001) and the edited collection Speaking Out: Protest and Activism in the 1960s and 1970s (Prentice Hall, 2009), and she writes about the origins and impact of mass incarceration for both scholarly and popular publications including the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Dissent. She is currently completing a history of the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion and its legacy for Pantheon Books.

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