When shared with the wider world, writing moves beyond an act of individual consciousness and self-expression to become a communal exchange that creates knowledge, compassion, empathy, recognition of shared conditions and analysis of social dilemmas. This belief is at the heart of “Writing Beyond the Prison: Reimagining the Carceral Ecosystem with Incarcerated Authors,” an interdisciplinary public humanities project at Stony Brook University.
The project was one of only 24 selected nationally by the American Council of Learned Societies to receive a Sustaining Public Engagement Grant of nearly $225,000. The grant is part of a $3.5 million funding program made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan initiative.
Coordinated within the College of Arts and Sciences’ (CAS) Humanities Institute and led by co-PIs Robert Chase, associate professor in the Department of History; Zebulon Miletsky, associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies; and Susan Scheckel, associate professor in the Department of English, the project includes:
- The construction of a “Living Archive” of writings by incarcerated authors and their families; this archive will be housed in the SBU Library
- Creating curatorial blogs that place the writings in historical and cultural context
- Building a writing curriculum that will support those who wish to share their own experiences with incarceration through their writing
“What we’re trying to do with this project is to amplify the voices of people impacted by incarceration, to bring them into the conversation as we study, research and teach about topics related to incarceration in the US.” Scheckel said. “These powerful writings have tremendous potential in the classroom, as they can create an emotional connection to the subject, convey a sense of urgency, increase empathy, and deepen our understanding of complex social issues.”
The Humanities Institute recently hosted “Teaching Beyond the Prison,” a pedagogy workshop that provided a glimpse of the range of writings in the “Living Archive” — including poetry, fiction, autobiographies and essays — and illustrated how these writings can energize teaching in diverse disciplines. Graduate students Sarah Ahmedani, History; Anthony Gomez, English; Kara Pernicano, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Alexandra Velez, History, shared model assignments that incorporate manuscripts from the “Living Archive.” These students were selected this fall as Carceral Research and Teaching Fellows, and their work on this project was supported by the CAS Center for Changing Systems of Power.
“One goal of the project is to further the understanding of mass incarceration and its collateral damage beyond the prison through the development of new and existing courses,” Scheckel said. She created the new course “American Narratives of Race and Justice” scheduled for Spring 2023; this and Chase’s “Carceral Studies: Prisons, Policing, and Race in U.S. History” course will both utilize the “Living Archive” as the primary source of documents for analysis and research. While the library archive is still under construction, instructors who are interested in using the “Living Archive” in their teaching should contact Susan Scheckel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Writing Beyond the Prison” is the culmination of efforts by many individuals and organizations working steadily over several years. In 2020, the “Abolitionist Futures” initiative was co-sponsored by the Humanities Institute and CAS Office of the Dean to explore the work that remains to be done to abolish barriers to a just and equitable democracy. As part of this initiative, professors Chase and Miletsky led a study group investigating “Global Carceral States and Networks.” For more than two years, 16 faculty and graduate students gathered weekly to examine historical and theoretical perspectives on carceral systems and began to build a network of scholar-activists to address structural inequalities and systemic racism within the carceral ecosystem.
The interdisciplinary project also involves two grassroots organizations, the United Black Family Scholarship Foundation (UBFSF) and Herstory Writers Network, both of which have turned to writing as a process of personal and social transformation in their work with individuals and communities impacted by incarceration.
The nonprofit UBFSF was founded by the incarcerated activist Ivan Kilgore with the mission “to create a culture of higher learning within these [incarcerated] communities.” Thus far, UBSF has collected more than 100 manuscripts by incarcerated authors across the country to become part of the “Living Archive.”
For more than 25 years, Herstory has used a unique methodology to teach writing that empowers people, including some of the most marginalized and silenced members of our society, to speak their truth and tell their own stories with a sense of purpose, transforming their lived experiences into written memoirs powerful enough to change hearts, minds and policies.
This month, the work of “Writing Beyond the Prison” continues with a community event in collaboration with S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth and Herstory Writers Network, held on December 15, from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Uniondale Public Library. Visit the Humanities Institute website for news and announcements.