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Lessons in Captivity: A Cultural History of Gender and Criminality During the Transitional Carceral Era, 1930-1973 Open Access

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This dissertation explores the cultural roots of the imprisonment of women in modern America. Though women prisoners represent the fastest growing sector of the American prison population today, increasing at triple the rate of male prisoners, scholars offer limited historical context for this dramatic growth. This project focuses on the transitional carceral era, a set of decades that followed the women’s reformatory era and preceded the current epidemic of mass incarceration. It analyzes common sense understandings of American female prisoners, prisons, and carceral technologies depicted in news media, novels, and popular film, paying particular attention to the ways in which cultural products shaped and where shaped by constructions of whiteness and femininity. Using this lens, Lessons in Captivity makes two primary arguments and interventions. First, I argue that cultural representations of women prisoners were – and continue to be – indispensable tools through which the American public came to understand, learn about, and acclimate to carceral practices, such as solitary confinement and the death penalty. Mainstream newspapers and women-in-prison films thus helped to normalize the punitive turn in America, providing an imaginary space through which citizens defined, negotiated, and altered their perceptions of women prisoners. Second, in addition to an educational function, cultural representations of women in prison instructed the state about what worked, failed, and provoked popular resistance. In this way, cultural representations of carceral practices provided a feedback loop through which the state could alter its tactics to decrease political friction, thereby creating more “efficient” carceral strategies and technologies. This feedback often differed for white prisoners and prisoners of color, thus providing additional ways to the state to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.

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