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PunishingBodies: Feminist Responses to the Carceral State

The Gensler Family Symposium on Feminism in a Global Context took place April 13-17th.  This year’s theme is a meditation on what feminism can tell us about mass incarceration, the policing of poor communities, and the highly radicalized violence we see the state commit over and over again. Racial hierarchies have been built upon gender binaries since the birth of modernity. The hyper-masculinization of black and Latino communities and marking them as dangerous goes alongside the “racial innocence” of a white state. Whatever response comes after Ferguson, after Trayvon Martin, after Eric Garner, after Tamir Rice, after decades of a war on the poor, they must include feminism’s intersectional analysis of how race and gender, class and nation, space and sexuality work together to punish some bodies in the name of protecting others.


Speaker Bios

J. Finley  “2 Bees from Oakland:” Truthful Lies, Sincere Realities, and Freedom Dreams in Black Women’s Comedy
J Finley is a C3 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in American Studies at Middlebury College. Her research addresses black women’s history, expressive culture, and public performance. J is interested in questions about divergent enactments of feminism in public culture, particularly how black women’s cultural production can challenge and expand traditional narratives of resistance, redress, and feminist politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript, Firespitters: Performance, Power, and Payoff in African American Women’s Humor, which brings together ethnographic fieldwork, her autoethnographic experiences as an amateur stand-up comic, and close readings of black women’s comedic performances. She argues that humor is more than merely a form of entertainment for black women; rather, it is a mode of literacy and serious site of self-making.

J will discuss the lives and comedy of Miss Laura Hayes and Luenell, two black female professional comics with histories of incarceration for felonies. Miss Laura was a booster in Oakland, CA for almost 20 years, a hustler “in the game,” stealing clothing and reselling it on the street to support her family. Luenell, dubbed “The Original Bad Girl of Comedy,” was raised in Castro Valley, CA and lived a life that earned her the title, fighting, drinking, and serving time in jail. Both women have histories of incarceration, and their illicit experiences shape and inform their comedic performances. In my talk, I will address questions of how the “bad girl” persona in black comedy is rooted in a certain working-class “respectability” and becomes a marker of black urban sincerity. I argue public performance that re-purposes and reclaims the stigmatization associated with felon status and urbanity the U.S. can be a radical liberatory act. Access to the stage enables these two comics to build productive lives around simultaneously transcending and acknowledging the permanence of their checkered pasts. In so doing, they not only snatch a sense of empowerment from the margins, but also forge an alternative to exploitation in the form of underpaid labor or seeking a living outside the law.

David Hernandez, “Women and Children Last: Family Detention as Punishment”
David Hernández is Assistant Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College. His research focuses on immigration enforcement, in particular, the U.S. detention regime. He is completing a book manuscript on this institution, entitled “Undue Process: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship.” His article “Pursuant to Deportation: Latinos and Immigrant Detention” was recently reprinted for the second time in Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader (Stanford University Press). Hernández is co-editor of The Critical Ethnic Studies Reader, forthcoming by Duke University Press.

This lecture will address the government practice of detaining migrants in “family residential centers” during deportation and asylum hearings. Whereas detaining men, women, and children is a long-standing immigration enforcement practice, “family detention” received renewed scrutiny in Spring and Summer 2014 when 60,000 Central American minors traveling unaccompanied or with a parent were apprehended by U.S. border and immigration officials. The “crisis,” as it was called, prompted the expansion and “surge” of both public and privately run detention facilities for women and children, a practice that had been largely abandoned only five years prior because of the range of abuses against detainees. The new facilities commissioned in Summer and Fall 2014—a government run detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico and two private, for-profit facilities in Karnes County and Dilley, Texas—have quickly devolved and led to a repetition of past abuses—including sexual abuse, unsanitary conditions, and legal obstruction—by the same government and corporate managers at the helm of public debacles less than a decade ago. The presentation will address the contemporary “crisis” in family detention in the context of previous experiments with family incarceration by immigration officials dating back to the 1930s.

David R. Karp, “Restorative Justice: A framework for college settings”
David. Karp is Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Campus Life at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is also Professor of Sociology and previously Chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and Director of the Program in Law and Society. His scholarship focuses on restorative justice in community and campus settings and on prison programs preparing inmates for return to the community. David has published more than 100 academic papers and six books, including The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities (2013) and Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty (2006). David is the Principal Investigator of a multi-campus research project on student conduct practices called the STARR Project (Student Accountability and Restorative Research Project). He is also a volunteer mediator and a restorative justice facilitator and trainer. David received a B.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Washington.

Join David as he discusses the role and form of restorative justice at Skidmore College. This lecture will include a panel discussion as key faculty and staff further brainstorm the structure and form that restorative justice could take at Middlebury.

Judith Levine: “Why feminists must oppose the sex offender regime
Journalist and activist Judith Levine currently writes about sex, justice, and emotion in politics for Boston Review, the Vermont weekly Seven Days, and other publications. She is the award-winning author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, and three other nonfiction books, and serves on the board of directors of the National Center for Reason & Justice (

In fighting to dismantle the carceral state, feminists, queers, and abolitionists implicitly evince sympathy for people marked as felons, whether the offense was drug dealing or homicide. But there is no equivalent sympathy for those marked as criminal sexual deviants, nearly 800,000 of whom are on sex offender registries, living under such radical geographic and economic restriction and stigma that they experience what Orlando Patterson called “social death.”

If the charge is a sex offense, even innocence makes no difference. In a recent case, when four Tejana lesbians were imprisoned for 15 years on patently false child sex abuse allegations, almost everyone who should have understood their plight turned their backs.

What is feminism’s relationship to harsh U.S. sex crimes statute and policy? How does the exclusion of the sex offender from the aegis of feminist social justice movements threaten the integrity of those movements and undermine sexual freedom and justice themselves?

Jill McCorkel, “From Good Girls to ‘Real’ Criminals: Dissecting the Market Logic and Racial Politics of Incarcerating Women”
Jill McCorkel is associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University.  Her areas of expertise include prisons & punishment, law & criminal justice policy, and social inequality.  Dr. McCorkel’s research investigates the social and political consequences of mass incarceration in the United States.  She focuses primarily on how law and systems of punishment perpetuate race, class, and gender-based inequities.  Her recent book, Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment (New York University Press, 2013) explores the consequences of the War on Drugs and “get tough” policies for women prisoners.

Join Jill as she discusses the way in which mass incarceration has affected poor African American women and Latina women. By now, the story of how the Drug War gave rise to the phenomenon of mass incarceration is a familiar one: the implementation of lengthy, mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses and extensive deployment of law enforcement to targeted communities (primarily African American and Latino, urban neighborhoods) sent millions of Americans to prison and made the United States the world leader in incarceration.  What is less familiar is the impact of this on women, particularly African American and Latina women.  From the mid 1990s forward to the present day, the rate at which the U.S. incarcerates women is historically and globally unprecedented.  Indeed, a recent report from the International Centre for Prison Studies finds that in 2013 the US incarcerates nearly a third of the world’s women prisoners (China and Russia place a very distant second and third).  The staggering increase in the number of incarcerated women has had profound consequences for women’s prisons, shaping both the ideology and practice of punishment & control.  In this paper, I examine the role that private vendors and racial logic played in shaping punitive punishment outcomes, with a particular focus on how African American and Latina women are simultaneously being framed as a source of pathology and profit.

Laurence Ralph, “Wheelchair Politics: Disability and Violent Masculinities within a Gang”
Laurence Ralph is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University. He is the author of Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, published by the University of Chicago Press. The book explores the networks of commerce, criminality, and affiliation that congeal in the figure of the disabled gang affiliate. Disabled gang members, he argues, are one of several kinds of urban residents who are especially susceptible to “injury,” a concept he uses to theorize several related genres of debility. Laurence’s research interests include: gang formations, urban anthropology, disability, medical anthropology, masculinity, and race.

Join Laurence as he discusses his most recent research arguing that, while admirable, the focus on assuaging social difference within the disability right’s movement has served to obscure key distinctions within disabled communities along the axes of race, socioeconomic status, and gender. While the larger community of disabled activists tends to use the social model of disability, in which there is multiple ways to view ability and physical capacities are not devalued, disabled ex-gang members rely on a medical model of disability that highlights physical differences rather than diminishing them. Here we see what happens when several wheelchair-bound ex-gang members use their life stories to try and steer other young gang members away from a gang’s reliance on sacrifice and vengeance. The fact that they are willing to insist on the defectiveness of their own bodies as a way to deter gun violence is an example of the sheer magnitude of problems with which poor African Americans must contend, and the sheer burden that violence creates in urban Chicago.

Gayle Salamon, “The Life and Death of Latisha King”
Gayle Salamon is Associate Professor of English and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University.  Her research interests include phenomenology, gender and queer theory, psychoanalysis,  and contemporary Continental philosophy.  She is the author of Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality winner of the 2010 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies.  She is currently at work on two manuscripts, one exploring narrations of bodily pain and disability in contemporary memoir entitled Painography: Metaphor and the Phenomenology of Chronic Pain, and a second analyzing the murder of 15 year old L. King.

Professor Salamon is currently finishing Passing Period, a book analyzing the 2008 classroom shooting of gender-transgressive 15-year-old L. King.  She examines how violence against queer and trans bodies justifies itself as defensive by retroactively figuring non-normative gender expression as itself a violent act.  Professor Salamon attended the criminal murder trial in 2011, and uses phenomenology to read the ways in which gender was re-enacted in the courtroom during that trial.

Rebecca Tiger, “Addiction, Surveillance and the Carceral State”

Rebecca Tiger is a sociologist who teaches courses on drugs, punishment, deviance, the social control of youth, and celebrity. My first book Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System (NYU Press, 2013) examines the ideology of coerced drug treatment and the historical construction of addiction. My current book project Rock Bottom focuses on popular and elite media constructions of addiction and the surveillance technology used to monitor drug users. My work has been published in Contexts, Contemporary Sociology, New Media & Society, and Sociological Forum.

Over the past ten years, the use of continuous alcohol monitoring technology has been on the rise in the criminal justice system in the U.S. for people under “community supervision” such as probation, parole and pre-trial release. The most widely used of these devices, SCRAM, a waterproof “transdermal alcohol monitoring anklet”, came to public attention through photos of celebrities, notably Lindsay Lohan, wearing what popular media has referred to as “Hollywood’s latest fashion accessory”. SCRAM’s aggressive attempts to infiltrate the “criminal justice market” (as of 2013, it’s been adopted by courts in 49 states) have been helped by what SCRAM’s CEO refers to as “frequent flyers” such as Lindsay Lohan. When her SCRAM detected alcohol use and the courts quickly revoked her probation, this served as a high profile testament to the device’s effectiveness.

Described as a “disruptive technology” by AMS’s CEO, SCRAM is transforming addiction from a condition requiring treatment to a behavior stopped through 24-hour surveillance backed by the threat of incarceration: the technology is the treatment. This shift is supported by media coverage that uncritically highlights its use by celebrities. In this talk, I consider the role popular and elite media play in the production of meaning about SCRAM. I focus particularly on how the gendered dimension to this media coverage masks the inequality inherent in punishment, presenting addiction as a “disease that does not discriminate”. Overall, I argue that media coverage that focuses on SCRAM’s effectiveness at detecting alcohol use or its necessity to “cure” addiction obscures the implications of criminal justice surveillance technology’s increasing reach and scope. Thus, I consider broadly how media coverage of mobile surveillance technologies works to support their legitimacy.

Suzi Wizowaty, “Criminal Justice Reform in Vermont: the changing landscape”

Suzi Wizowaty spent most of her life working with books and ideas, as a bookseller, librarian, newspaper writer, humanities council program director. On the side she wrote novels, taught creative writing at local colleges and led book discussions. (Her most recent novel, The Return of Jason Green, came out in 2014.) Leading book discussions and then poetry workshops in Vermont’s prisons off and on for 20 years led to a deepening interest in criminal justice, which then led her to the state legislature where she served three terms, 2009-2014.  In 2013, Suzi founded Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which she now directs full time

Gensler 2015

Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies

Chellis House Women's Resource Center
56 Hillcrest Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753