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History from Below, History from the Inside: The Penal Press and Prison Reform

Sat, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hawai'i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 301 A


Prisoners see things occluded from the view of others, and see them from a perspective frequently excluded from histories of the prison system. Incorporating prisoners’ voices into a history of prisons seems so common-sensical that it should need no explanation. But criminology has a history of objectifying and silencing the subjects of its inquiry. This occurs despite the realization that there is no singular truth and methodologies that demand the inclusion of previously subjugated voices and knowledges. Adding prisoners into prison history is more than mere ‘contribution history’ – more than simply adding the ideas and exploits of marginalized groups to the existing historical accounts. The material in the penal press and prisoners’ writing shifts the dominant narratives of prison reform in Canada, challenging widely accepted notions that Canadian prisons steadily progressed from savage to civilized conditions. This long-accepted trope is based largely on the archival record established by government, which paints a picture of officials whose humane and thoughtful reform plans were sometimes stifled by a lack of financing and resources, but were always pushing prisons in a more humanitarian direction. As should be evident, such works are most valuable because they reveal a particular understanding of penology, practice and achievement; their value as evidential source material is less certain. Using the penal press materials, we have attempted to reconstitute the history of Canada’s federal prison system in the mid-twentieth century through a process of collective biography – one involving prisoners, administrators, prison reformers, and politicians. In part, we aimed “to reconstitute a round of life as people lived it.”[i] We also worked to “connect [prisoners’ lives] on the small scale with large social structures and processes.” After doing so, it is clear that prison-based writers were not simply scribes, passively recording the events that they witnessed (though their writing does add considerably to the evidential record); they were active agents, shaping the prison system and reshaping the reform interventions introduced during the period under study. In the pages of the penal press, convicts shared their ideals and aspirations, engaged with prisoners at other institutions, and spoke of events in the outside world. Moreover, they met with commissioners, participated in correctional staff training events, organized sports, recreation, leisure and hobbycraft activities for prisoners, influenced policy through inmate committees, and through their resistance sometimes set the agenda at warden’s conferences. Thus, the evidence provided by the penal press forces a reconsideration of the extant research, analysis and presentation of prison reform.


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