‘Graveyards of Exclusion:’ Archives, Prisons, and the Bounds of Belonging

“Illustration of Mary Jones (1838).” Mary Jones was a black transgender sex worker imprisoned in New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison during the 1830’s. May the following essay serve as dedication to her memory and to all sex workers who continue to be criminalized to this day. Image source: Digital Transgender Archive.

On February 9, 2019, I gave the keynote address at the annual Scholar and Feminist Conference organized by the esteemed Barnard Center for Research on Women. This year’s conference theme was entitled, “The Politics and Ethics of the Archive.” I am grateful to the organizers of the conference as well as those in attendance for my address, a lightly edited version of which begins below.

Before I get into the heart of my talk, I want to offer a preface that explains why exactly I will be discussing archives and prisons in the same breath. It’s far from an obvious observation. The short answer is that over the last ten years, I have spent the greater part of my time in both of these spaces in different capacities.

The first archive I ever worked at, the Beinecke Library at Yale, sits just a few blocks away from the New Haven Correctional Center, which is a Level 4 high-security jail that incarcerates people prior to trial or sentencing. During the summer of 2008, I would leave from tutoring at the jail and walk into work at the Beinecke.

Fast forward four years later in 2012 and I’m a master’s student in the archives program at the University of Michigan. I opt to write a master’s thesis, because I like torturing myself apparently, and I select as my focus the ways that prisons keep records of people they send to solitary confinement. I’ll never forget reading about the fundamentals of records management while at a casino hotel in Tupelo, Mississippi, before driving out the next morning to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman to talk with prison administrators and guards about their process for packaging people into caged boxes and storing them away for definite or indefinite sentences.

Main entrance to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, MS. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward four more years to 2016 and I’m a digital archivist at Princeton University by day, helping keep the modern history of a university that made its wealth in part from the labor of enslaved people. By night I was co-teaching English courses to college students who are legally enslaved at different prisons in New Jersey. Fast forward to the present: I’m training to be a social anthropologist, where I spend much of my time thinking and reading about archives and prisons.

I mention all of this to say that, prior to my preparation for this talk, I never saw any connections between my experiences in archives and prisons. I arrived at one site, the archive, to labor and arrived at the other, to prison, to liberate. I separated in my mind the labor from the liberation, failing to realize that you can’t spell the word liberation without the labor. The only things that seemed obvious to me about both archives and prisons were their racialized, gendered, and classed dynamics. The professional staff makeup of archives is disproportionately white and the largest share of the labor is done by women, whereas the composition of incarcerated people is disproportionately black and poor, while the people most disproportionately criminalized within that demographic are black women, which the historian Dr. Kali Gross (2015) meticulously tracks with her scholarship.

These racialized, gendered, and classed dynamics of archives and prisons should be apparent, but what’s less so is what I am about to describe. It’s been two years since I’ve visited a prison or worked as an archivist, and this distance has given me room to read, reflect, and ruminate on the social functions these two sites serve. More than anything, I want everyone here to know that I am not pulling these ideas out of my ass and making them up, as men are wont to do in situations such as these. Rather, what you’re about to hear comes from engaged experiences, sensitive scenes, and lived tensions. This is not the only or definitive way to look at the problem; it’s just the way I do so and my hope is that it might open up for you some of the topics covered at this conference and, if I do my job right, maybe even a few topics that it didn’t.

The boundaries of an archive exist equally in their fixity and fluidity. The rarity of archival records, so the logic goes, requires the organizations that manage them to erect and enforce borders capable of communicating to potential visitors that they have indeed entered a separate space. Weighty doors, swipe card readers, and security guards accomplish the aim appropriately. Yet, an archive also must maintain permeable perimeters in order to engender processes of knowledge creation and dissemination. An archive thus attracts potential researchers in part from its support of past researchers seeking to share findings from previous visits. In this way, archives teeter on a tension that simultaneously must keep certain items in and keep certain people out, all the while ensuring a secured but steady cycle of those who enter and those who exit.

The persistent but porous boundaries of archives mirrors that of another site similarly situated on the erection and enforcement of borders: prisons. Penal institutions, too, deploy procedures and practices to communicate to the incarcerated and those who visit them that they have also crossed into a wholly other world. Similarly weighty doors, identification card verification technologies, and correctional officers patrol the perimeters of prisons. They, unlike archives, commit people within their walls against their will but share a dependency on the circulation of souls beyond the bars and back again. That is, prisons in the United States have released millions more people than it incarcerates at any given point in time (Williams 2018). The cycle is precisely the point: a prison that fails to repeat the rhythm is indeed, as Foucault (1995, 266) claims, a failure.

Yet the emphasis by both archives and prisons on boundaries and (circulation of) bodies does not constitute their greatest affinity. Instead, this talk attempts to chronicle, compare, and contemplate how these two seemingly unrelated institutions in the United States converge and diverge on issues of kinship and citizenship. The recent turn in archival praxis towards these two social phenomena prompts a consideration of the ways in which the prison, by design of its social function, embodies their supreme severance. Both archives and prisons articulate expressions of state power, hence what follows carries significance for archivists, anti-prison activists, and the small but growing contingent of thinkers who labor as both, thereby envisioning their work as seminal in contesting ‘graveyards of exclusion’ in whichever form, forum, or manifestation they take shape.

The term archival praxis used in this talk refers to the range of practices and discourse among a variety of social and professional organizations that operate ostensibly to promote public access to archival records. Examples of these organizations include the historical societies and manuscript libraries organized as independent non-profit entities funded largely by individual monetary donations; as well as the governmental archival repositories and university special collections organized within a larger institution funded from a mixture of public and private sources. Other examples include the increasing number of initiatives intentionally established free from either of those constraints. The tens of thousands of groups in the United States encapsulated in the broad swath of the term ‘archival praxis’ might appear to suggest that a shared focus on preserving pieces of the past is all that coheres these social spaces into a recognizable whole. However, the historical and contemporary praxis of these organizations actually suggest that archives fulfill grander social functions: kinship and citizenship.

Kinship is, of course, a preoccupation of anthropologists and has been for decades. Rather than simply a substitute for the word family, kinship refers to the structural, systemic, and symbolic elements of the relationships shared among people who identify as kin, whether that be on the basis of blood, obligation, or a mixture of both (Fox 1967). The earliest social science studies of kinship emerged in the British mold of social anthropology, building out theories of kinship based upon the observations of so-called primitive societies (e.g., Evans-Pritchard 1940, Radcliff-Brown 1952, Fortes 1953), mostly those on the African continent who blended political and kinship structures in a way inconsistent with the state bureaucratic apparatus of Europe and the United States. The anthropological study of kinship has been critiqued from a number of scholars within and beyond the discipline, chief among them David Schneider. Schneider argued that the anthropological approach to kinship studies relied on an unstated assumption that ‘blood is thicker than water.’ He called this assumption part of the ‘ethnoepistemology of European culture’ (1984, 175) and concluded that anthropologists have to grapple with the implications of this tacit assumption, or else abandon the study of kinship altogether.

Schneider’s argument can be extrapolated to archival praxis to make a compelling case that, in the US anyway, the field has likewise tacitly assumed that the family is a primary social entity around which to collect, arrange, and describe a set of archival records. To put it another way, archival praxis in the United States has a family fetish evident through three avenues. The first pertains to the emergence of archival institutions. The second relates to the reality of who currently constitutes a primary archival user base. The third is reflected in a set of technological instructions aimed at assisting that user base.

On the first point about the history of archival institutions, many historians, literary, and archival studies scholars point to the establishment of a national archives by France following the French Revolution as the dawn of modern archival administration. While certainly true to an extent, this declaration does not account for the fact that in the United States, a unified National Archives did not emerge until the 1930s. It would be inaccurate to claim that the way that the French marshalled memory to foment a national identity was mirrored in the United States. Rather, the earliest archival repositories in the United States were the private historical societies and manuscript libraries of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions of the nascent nation. Their primary purpose was not to assemble an archive for the new idea of America, nor was it to be accessible to everyone. Instead these institutions largely collected family papers of the wealthy merchants, enslavers, and politicians who mostly funded these operations. The early emphasis on documenting family history explains why the first public archives in the US emerge in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi following the end of Reconstruction in the South. Without a reliable source of public records, champions of the Lost Cause would have been unable to document their lineage to the Confederate soldiers to whom many Southern towns began erecting monuments and memorials at this same time. A public archive also allowed white Southerners to file claims for pensions owed to descendants of veterans as well as their ability to join groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (Galloway 2006). It would be these archival professionals from the South — mainly North Carolina — who initially led the US National Archives and ushered the field into its present professional form.

Recognition of the origins of archive-making in the United States helps highlight how the field of archival praxis would later develop, which brings me to the second point about the field’s family fetish: its primary user base. Contrary to what many archivists like to admit, we do not — or, I did not — spend the majority of the day helping historians find the last missing link in the puzzle they were trying to solve and later publish for a prestigious university press. The most consistent and persistent user base of archival repositories have been genealogists (Freeman 1984). This holds true regardless of whether the archive is a public government agency or a division of a private university’s library. For instance, while working at the Maryland State Archives, I answered countless reference inquiries from researchers trying to locate a death certificate for proof of an ancestor’s birthplace, an especially important piece of information for black people whose births were not systematically recorded in Maryland and other parts of the country. Likewise, during my reference shifts at the university archives at Princeton, a sizeable number of phone calls and emails came from people following up on family legends that they had an ancestor who attended or graduated from Princeton at some point. To cope with the onslaught of calls, reference archivists kept a ready reference database designed with the information that would immediately confirm or deny these intergenerational tall tales. To reiterate, this is not to say that all types of archives rely on or have a substantial usage rate by genealogists. It is to say, however, that a sizeable share of them do.

Evidence to support that assertion brings me to the third way archives embody a fetish on family: through the deployment of Encoded Archival Context — Corporate bodies, Persons and Families (EAC-CPF). EAC-CPF is an international standard of rules for encoding information about the people — corporate bodies, corporal bodies, and families — who create archival records. Establishment of the creator of an archival collection is a first step in distinguishing one set of records from another. It is as significant in the landscape of archival praxis as any other organizing principle, for it determines the scope and content of the records that a researcher will encounter. Thus EAC-CPF as a standard aims to facilitate the creation of “authoritative” records about a corporation, person, or family so that a researcher at an archive in Massachusetts, for example, who is viewing a set of family papers there could easily notice a related set of family papers in Mississippi.

This is significant because EAC-CPF implicitly inscribes the family as a natural, stable, and consistent corporal entity. This assumption barely holds up for white people (Yanagisako 2002), and it certainly does not hold up for the black, indigenous, and Latinx peoples who have had to forge familial ties in particular forms as a way to cope with white supremacy, cisgender heteronormativity, forced migration, mass criminalization, and invading armies (Weston 1997).

Label from 12″ single of ‘Love the Life You Live’ by Danny Xtravaganza. Danny was a founding member of the House of Xtravaganza, one of the famed houses and families of the New York ballroom scene depicted in cultural works such as the TV show Pose, the novel The House of Impossible Beauties, and the documentary Paris Is Burning. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The elevation of the family in archival praxis as a co-equivalent of a person and a corporation merits more (re)consideration than it hitherto has received. The records of the McDonald’s corporation or the papers of Ray Kroc cohere in a particular way that the Kroc Family Papers would not, for family is a messy and imprecise unit of observation. Many in this room, to be sure, are aware of and probably descendants of the many black babies bore from the rape of enslaved black women, neither of whom an archival authority record would recognize as belonging to the family of the enslaver and entitled to the rights therein.

The rights that accompany membership in a family suggest a secondary role of archives in the United States: the cultivation of a citizenry. Archives keep, among other sets of records, the constitutions, the declarations, and the sets of laws that govern a democratic society. The accessibility of the archive, so goes the argument, reflects the fact that citizens have the ability to contest their grievances on the bases of documents stored at the archives (Jimerson 2009). People have used archives to hold accountable states and governments that once authorized their abuse, detention, and other forms of violence (e.g., Roberts-Moore 2002 and Valderhaug 2011). It is within the archive that the subject becomes a citizen, fully aware of the benefits guaranteed in the legal system(s) designed for her enjoyment. The degree to which archival repositories in the United States succeed at this function is independent of the fact that the professional literature and professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists repeat this rhetoric and purport archives as one of the linchpins of a democratic and thus legitimate state. Without them, it is argued, citizens are reduced to subjects and incapable of holding those in power to account for their actions and misdeeds.

In fact, when several other archivists — some of whom are here today — and I co-created an archive of police violence in Cleveland, Ohio, we soon devised the designation of “citizen archivist” to refer to the people who were responsible for the day-to-day operation and control of the project, in contrast to ourselves as the “advisory archivists” (Williams and Drake 2017). Presumably, other adjectives would have fit the bill; community, resident, or perhaps no othering at all would have sufficed. However, our selection of the modifier ‘citizen’ adheres to the growing expectation that archives in democratic states exist as a form of protection against a violent, tyrannical, and discriminatory state. The state’s discrimination among those within its own polity explains the recent explosion of archives established explicitly to counter the hegemony of the rights-focused framework found in many mainstream archives (Caswell and Cifor 2016). One might read the ever-expanding literature and praxis of community archives as an articulation of the tension between the archive as a site that upholds citizenship and the archive as a site that usurps it (Hughes-Watkins 2018).

The significant takeaway is that the means of archival repositories — collecting and providing access to archival records — must not obscure the social ends of archival repositories. Surely, archives articulate other ends, such as holding collectively memory, a task shared with libraries and museums. But it has been my point to demonstrate the centrality of kinship and citizenship to archival praxis and in doing so highlight their contingencies and inconsistencies. Family members and citizens are not born, but instead must be made and remade (Ong 1996). Archives are a hidden terrain, then, in a much larger battleground of belonging.

In the US, the institution of the prison functions as a foil on this battlefield of belonging. By prison I refer not only to the carceral facilities named as such and administered by state and federal governments but also to the local and transnational sites of detention in which the majority of prisoners are actually held, often times before a trial and sometimes without formal charges. While there is no single unifying logic among these tens of thousands of sites, an overarching impact they all leave is the separation from one’s family and the suspension of one’s citizenship. Whereas archives instantiate and help to facilitate kinship and citizenship ties, the prison exists to ensure their erasure. A closer examination of the particulars of each will illustrate the point.

Prisons aim to prevent the cultivation of existing familial bonds while circumscribing the creation of new ones. In sum, prisons accomplish this by dramatically reducing the ability of families to remain in contact with incarcerated loved ones. Private companies such as Securus Technologies charge family and friends close to two dollars for twenty-minute phone or video calls. Such calls are even more essential amidst the contemporary landscape of prisons, in which a person might be arrested and convicted in one region of the country but end up incarcerated through a private prison operator in an entirely different one. Even for those persons who are not packaged and shipped offsite, their family members face the toll of traversing to the remote locations they are held, a story captured in the prologue to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s 2007 book Golden Gulag. Even if one is able to reach the prison to visit someone who’s incarcerated, the unchecked power of the prison guard can so dehumanize and traumatize a visitor that they may never return. Angela Davis notes in her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? the sexual violence that women prisoners endure via the strip search, yet the same violence is experienced by ostensibly ‘free women’ visiting loved ones in prison. Citing the need to screen for contraband, officers can force women to reveal their under garments or require Muslim women to remove their hijab for inspection. Often times, this violence occurs in the view of children they have brought with them as well as in sight of other families.

While the gendered violence of prison thus can be an effective mode of family separation, it can also slow the growth of new additions to families as well. For instance, public health scholars and historians are leading initiatives to chronicle the forced sterilization of thousands of people confined in California’s psychiatric institutions (Stern et al 2017). The survivors of this eugenicist violence, which lasted for most of the twentieth century and without consent of the victims, were overwhelmingly female and disproportionately Chicana. After the eugenics law was repealed in 1979, hundreds more women prisoners in California were coerced into sterilization immediately after giving birth while still under heavy dosages of drugs to induce labor or alleviate pain.

Screenshot of the homepage of The Eugenic Rubicon, a digital resource that chronicles the history of forced sterilization in California. Visit the full website at: http://scalar.usc.edu/works/eugenic-rubicon-/index.

Another widespread means of population control by the prison is the reduction of states that allow conjugal visits, which provide a safe and intimate space for a couple to have sex or simply spend private time alone outside the immediate view of others. Of the few remaining states that allow these visits, just one permits same-sex conjugal visits, which is another iteration of violence exacted particularly against gay and lesbian lovers. By enacting policies that prevent future family members from ever coming into existence, prisons thereby enact a legal if not unjust means of forced birth control. Whereas archives actively obsess over the preservation of genealogical and (some) bloodline connections, prisons function as a structural severance of those ties. Of course, families and their incarcerated loved ones persist and resist in creative ways, but the overall impact is clear: fewer and weaker familial bonds that are systematically eroded as well as barriers to birth fresh ties.

The assault on kinship by the prison is surpassed only by its attack on citizenship. By stripping incarcerated people of fundamental human and democratic rights, prisons strive to make non-humans out of humans and non-citizens out of citizens. The American studies scholar A. Naomi Paik (2016) classifies people held in U.S. prison camps as living with an indefinite “rightlessness” in which their basic rights as people to bring grievances and have them heard are nullified in the name of national security. Increasingly, this approach is commonplace in domestic jails and prisons as well. The poisoned water wells such as the current case in Massachusetts that has led to multiple deaths, the cruel conditions in South Carolina prisons that led to a riot, and the lack of heating at the federal prison in Brooklyn all typify the human and civil rights stripped of people held in US prisons. People who forget to shelter their pets during a weather catastrophe face more consequences than a prison administration that leaves behind incarcerated people amidst a hurricane or other extreme weather disaster.

The process of prisoner dehumanization preludes the revocation of rights afforded to citizens. Thus, people with prison sentences in forty-eight out of fifty states lose the right to vote during their incarceration and in some states lose it permanently. These voter suppression laws rode a wave of anti-prisoner legislation cosigned by both major political parties and included such activities as the inability to form political action committees and even the right to file a freedom of information request. That latter ability, to have access to the records created in the conduct of government business that is so enshrined in American archival praxis, is disallowed among many people doing time for a felony conviction.

While prisons enforce many other schemes of racist, sexist, and classist controls, it might be said that they additionally enforce a regime that seeks to break kinship ties and dissolve citizenship for people in prison. The mode of the prison’s execution — long-term incarceration and the violence associated with it — works to serve these larger ends as well and, when placed alongside of archives, mark prisons as formative sites of un-belonging. Both sites constitute modalities of inclusion as well as exclusion, establishing who is and is not legitimate beings before the eyes of the state. Thus, the change of the Library of Congress subject heading from “illegal aliens” to “noncitizens” (Aguilera 2016), problematic in its own regard, reflects a more accurate summation of the penal logic. Much like family and citizens have to be made, so too must non-family and non-citizens.

With the case made that archives and prisons are at their essence about processes of belonging and un-belonging, how does that connect back to the conference theme of The Politics and Ethics of the Archive? The conference description poses it perfectly. It reads, in part:

How can archival material be put to use to draw attention to muted histories and otherwise invisible networks of affiliation and connection?

The short answer is to read, learn from, and cite black women’s work (Inge 2018). The longer answer is to imagine, create, or join projects that intentionally dislodge, disrupt, and offer insurgencies against the technologies of un-belonging that prisons in particular engender. The creation, publication, and distribution of documentation that resists the dehumanization of our carceral culture constitute the crux of the archival matter. If, as I have argued, archives are writ large sites of belonging, it would follow then that they must be marshalled to dismantle the systems and sites based on exclusion from belonging. Two current archives — neither of which explicitly names itself as such — exemplify what this work looks like.

The first example is one I first learned of through Twitter roughly two years ago and have been following ever since. Launched by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, A Living Chance is a project that gives voice to the muted histories that this conference seeks to reveal by interviewing, illustrating, and detailing the lives of women serving Life without Parole (LWOP) prison sentences in California prisons. The general public and even mainstream prison reformers ignore the stories of these women for multiple reasons. First, they are facing a death sentence, which an LWOP invariably leads to: it is death-by-incarceration. As opposed to death-by-execution cases, which can catapult certain issues to the forefront of our criminal punishment system, death-by-incarceration is less spectacular and more routine. Normally the people who die by this method are older. They are disproportionately black women. This means that the organizing energy required to struggle in solidarity with them is too much for politicians seeking to secure a soundbite. Second, these women were typically convicted of a violent crime which, again, many in the public and prison reformers are unwilling to face because to do so would acknowledge the conspiratorial confluence of sexist and racist violence that many women and gender-queer people face at the hands of intimate partners as well as police. Despite these realities, A Living Chance offers an intervention of how to infuse organizing campaigns with liberatory archival initiatives. In a space that reminds these women of their un-belonging, their project is evidence of the ways in which archivists, abolitionists, and those gravitating towards both can build what the historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez calls a ‘rebel archive’ in her 2017 book City of Inmates.

The project Testif-i | Storytelling for Change constitutes another such rebel archive. Again focusing on the impacts of incarceration on women as well as the families many lead, this archive elevates stories that are absent from the litany of programs, projects, and funding provided for boys and men escaping the tentacles of carcerality. Like A Living Chance, Testif-i also sprang from an existing abolitionist organizing group, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, that focuses on, among other issues, family reunification. The breakup of families, as described earlier, represents a core tenet of the American prison enterprise. Thus by identifying a targeted topic such as family reunification, the archive thus uplifts the stories of women from across a range of lifestyles, avoiding the seductive prison reformer trap of ranking who is most deserving of care and tenderness. Particularly rebellious about Testif-i is that it goes beyond providing stories of these women, which is a radical act on its own merit, and also contains information about voting rights and a recent legislative change in California that can aid women returning to the outside in accessing employment, housing and education. Testif-i is a testament for how to deploy archives in an effort to resist and rupture the processes of un-belonging that prisons perpetuate, producing what the sociologist Mimi Sheller (2012) might classify as ‘citizenship from below.’

The short title of this essay is “graveyards of exclusion” and I want to close with proper attribution of its origins and consider what it means for us today. I first heard this phrase from Derrick Washington: a friend, brother, abolitionist, intellectual, reader, and organizer with the Emancipation Initiative, a grassroots effort to end life without parole (LWOP) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In addition to his efforts with the Emancipation Initiative, Derrick also gives his time to the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign as an external advisor. He does all this work despite being held in captivity by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In November, Derrick delivered the keynote address to a campus-wide forum convened by the divestment campaign. In the original recording of his speech, he poignantly described prisons as “graveyards of exclusion.” Unbeknownst to me, he removed that phrase out of the revised address that we played at Harvard.

However, the phrase resonated with me because it names the stakes so clearly and convincingly. At risk are social and soon physical deaths that pile up in graveyards. An archivist with whom I formerly worked once said that archives are a type of death management work. She advised that archival repositories represent the documentary final resting places of a person’s lived experiences. Both she and Derrick are correct, in a sense. Archives manage lives after death, and prisons manage lives before death. The political and ethical end point of this claim should be obvious: if archivists care as much about families and citizenship as much as their websites, publications, and projects profess, then they would begin to see the prison as the ultimate rupture of those notions and envision their work as seminal in contesting these graveyards of exclusion. Nobody belongs in prison, and it is past time for archivists to press the boundaries of society to make this world possible. To do so commands an insurgent intentionality and an orientation to the work that, if practiced, brings us all to a more approximate version of freedom. That is the labor, and if we do it right, that is also the liberation.

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