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The Deep History of Incarceration

General Programming

dateMarch 29, 2022 timeTuesday, 6:30pm EDT locationVirtual Event
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Barnard Center for Research on Women
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
B&W photo of 19th century French colonial prison behind an excavated Roman military prison

Matthew Larsen and Mark Letteney

Natalie Boymel Kampen Memorial Lecture in Feminist Criticism and History

We live in the age of mass incarceration. The US accounts for only 4% of the global population, yet it holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Black people and people of color are dramatically targeted among the US carceral population.

A new wave of critical prison studies has emerged in response to this problem, aimed at investigating the past and present of incarceration, and attempting to imagine a more just future in prison reform or abolition. Michel Foucault’s work casts a long shadow over the field, especially in his claim that penal and reformatory incarceration is an early modern invention; that the prison was “born” only recently. Such a claim, however, is wrong and misleading.

This lecture will explore the deep history of incarceration, focusing on sites and experiences of incarceration in the ancient Mediterranean world. We will see spaces of incarceration through 3D models, and we will read the words of people imprisoned thousands of years ago as preserved in their papyrus letters requesting food, clothing, and release from captivity. The lecture will highlight the troubling resonances between ancient and modern carceral practices, along with clear points of departure that help to denaturalize some modern prison policies that appear to many as obvious or necessary. An incomplete vision of the prison’s past hinders our ability to envision a more just future.

Didier Fassin’s recent, influential Prison Worlds begins with the assertion “Prison is a recent invention.” If this common notion is false, then a new framework is needed in efforts to mobilize history in our attempt to move beyond our era of mass incarceration. This lecture will sketch the outlines of the prison in the ancient Mediterranean world, suggesting a number of ways in which modern practices of incarceration are — and are not — unique.

About the speakers

Mark Letteney is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California. His work covers the history of incarceration, the history of epistemology, and the archaeology of military occupation.

Matthew D. C. Larsen is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Copenhagen. His current research centers on the history of incarceration.

Image credit: Photograph Friedrich Rakob. Negative D-DAI-ROM-NA-RAK-37320”

Image detail: In the foreground of the photo is an excavated Roman military prison, while a 19th century French colonial prison stands in the background. Inmates at the French prison were the laborers who excavated the Roman site, an oddity whose story and implications Larsen and Letteney will address in their lecture.