The Role of Public Memory in Rural Prison Towns

Sara Jacobs is a current part-time OHMA student. In this post, she discusses the Prison Public Memory Project and the complex relationship between prisons and rural communities.

As OHMA students, we frequently consider how our work in oral history can contribute to public dialogue about pressing issues faced by our communities. It is a challenge to take longform interviews, with all their depth and complexity, and integrate them into community conversation. How do we reconcile the time-intensive nature of oral history with the urgency of movements for social change? Over the course of the year, we have seen a variety of innovative projects seeking to address this question from different angles.

On Thursday, April 21st, Tracy Huling, Quintin Cross, and Brian Buckley of the Prison Public Memory Project joined us from Hudson, New York to discuss their work. The project, founded by Huling in 2011, “uses public history, art, and new media technologies to engage communities in conversation about the complex roles of prisons in society,” with the goal of working “with local individuals and organizations across the country to recover, preserve, interpret, and honor the memories of what took place in these important institutions.”

Hudson’s history as a prison town goes back to 1887.  Brian, the site coordinator for the Hudson project, walked us through the prison’s different eras, from the House of Refuge for Women (1887-1904), to the NY State Training School for Girls (1904-1975), to the Hudson Correctional Facility (1976-present). Knowing this history is an important foundation for exploring how a prison’s presence affects the community. Quintin, a 5th generation Hudson resident and coordinator of the project’s work with the African-American community, illustrated this point with an anecdote about mentioning the Training School to his family, thereby eliciting a stream of memories and recollections not found in history books.

Hudson Correctional Facility

Hudson Correctional Facility

Through engaging with local community history, the Prison Public Memory Project addresses an increasingly widespread trend that is crucial to our understanding of how mass incarceration functions in the US. Since the 1980s, the location of prisons has shifted almost exclusively to rural towns, “with a prison opening somewhere in rural America every fifteen days.” (Huling, Building a Prison Economy in Rural America page 1). Prisons have deceptively been sold as a panacea to the financial trouble brought on by the decline of industry, leading rural communities to compete fiercely to host correctional facilities as a last ditch effort to revive their failing economies. It is one of the largest growth industries in the rural US and its effects require deep investigation. Oral history can help us break down the large systemic issue of mass incarceration by exploring how it plays out on an individual and community level. The Prison Public Memory Project, by engaging with historical memory, is sparking a conversation about the role of prisons in small towns and exploring the many complicated ways correctional facilities insert themselves into people’s lives.

The Project raises many important questions – what happens to a community when a prison becomes its lifeblood? How are people, both inside and outside of the walls, shaped by the rural prison trend and in what ways does it influence their daily lives and collective memory? What are the challenges of doing oral history in small communities and how do we reconcile the sometimes-competing demands of our individual relationships and accountability to our community with broader goals of promoting social change?

This workshop made me think deeply about my own community in downstate Illinois and the opportunities and challenges of organizing in prison towns. As someone with many incarcerated or formerly incarcerated family members, prisons have always been a part of my life. They have not only made their presence felt personally, but also on a wider level. Prisons are part of the scenery. I remember driving to high school and seeing men in orange jumpsuits landscaping the Governor’s Mansion, repairing the asphalt, cutting the grass by the highway. I saw the constant chain of buses shipping people from Chicago to small towns, often 5 hours or more away from their families. Prisons also make themselves felt in personal relationships. The last time I visited home, my cousin, who was under house arrest at the time, and I went to play basketball. We shared the court with two guards from the prison he had just left. We all waved and said hello.

Illinois districts with the largest prison populations, concentrated in rural downstate (http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/illinois/importing.html)

Illinois districts with the largest prison populations, concentrated in rural downstate (http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/illinois/importing.html)

Addressing the complex ways that prisons make themselves part of the social fabric of their host communities is an important part of organizing against mass incarceration and the rapid growth of the prison industry. The Prison Public Memory Project asks the community to contemplate the implications of having a prison in their backyard and opens the door for collective reflection on the promises that prisons make and the reality of life after they come to town. It is an inspiring fusion of historical memory, the current moment, and oral history that creates a rich and multilayered account of an ongoing systemic issue. It gives us a solid foundation that can inform our community organizing efforts and make our movements for social change stronger.