Professor Heather Ann Thompson has spent much of her career investigating the ways that people resist their confinement within the prison system. In her research she has found that systems of confinement, as well as policies of carceral control, extend far beyond the boundaries of a prison building. In 2016, Thompson and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) connected with history professor Matt Lassiter, who was also deeply engaged with research on criminalization. Together, they and lecturer Nora Krinitsky and professor Ashley Lucas from the U-M Residential College, sought out other interested faculty members, students, and community organizations to study carceral control. This enormous effort evolved into the Carceral State Project.
The project, which has received funding from the Humanities Collaboratory and an LSA Meet the Moment grant, now approaches the carceral state from a variety of expert perspectives from across the university, homing in on the following six areas of research and action: policing and criminalization, incarceration and resistance, reentry and consequences of conviction, immigration and the carceral state, visual culture and the carceral state, and Detroit as a carceral space. The Carceral State Project aims to document and confront forces of carceral control, through both scholarship and community action.
Ruby Tapia, project lead of the Critical Carceral Visualities branch of the Carceral State Project, and professor of women’s and gender studies and English, specializes in the critical reading of carceral images and the development of visual methodologies that illuminate its violence and possibilities for resisting this violence. A key question for her research is: How do we see a carceral space? Tapia and her research team use what she calls a “critical abolitionist lens” to decode such images. Carceral control, according to Tapia, is insidious, all-encompassing, and depends on stories the public has come to believe through their engagement with carceral imagery.
Tapia’s work laid the groundwork for what is now the “Change the Narrative” component under the Meet the Moment grant. Her co-lead is William Lopez, clinical assistant professor in the School of Public Health and 2022 National Center for Institutional Diversity Anti-Racism Collaborative Research & Community Impact Fellow. Lopez, who also holds appointments in Latina/o studies and Poverty Solutions, approaches the project with his own set of questions and analytical tools.
Lopez did field work in six towns raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Ohio, Tennessee, Nebraska, Texas, and Iowa. Lopez researched what happened on the days these raids took place, the carceral policies that led to them, and how these raids reverberated through the community. Lopez and his research team conducted interviews documenting multiple first-person accounts of people who were in a raid, or who helped after the raid. While news media necessarily devotes most of its focus to the short-term impact of workplace raids, Lopez and his team wanted to tell a fuller story. And he wanted to involve the community in an ethical way in documenting these stories visually. In order to do that, Lopez hired illustrators and U-M alums Dalia Harris and Carolina Jones Ortiz. Harris and Ortiz worked with researchers and Lopez to create images of the scenes of the aftermath of an ICE raid. Several of Harris and Ortiz’s illustrations became the online art exhibition ICE in the Heartland. “I hope my illustrations can move people to make a change,” says Harris (A.B. ’21), who majored in gender and health and minored in art and design, and who identifies as Afro-Latina. For Ortiz, who lived in Mexico until the age of 13, choosing specific scenes for illustration resonated personally. “Immigration is everywhere in my life,” says Ortiz (A.B. ’22), who majored in art and design and minored in education.
Lopez talked through research findings and data with Harris and Ortiz, omitting identifying details to protect the participants. From there, in what Lopez described as an artistic evolution of “journalistic photovoice,” Harris and Ortiz created a series of illustrations of the various scenes that comprise a raid. Some of these images were drawn from specific raids, while others were compilations of visual motifs that occurred across many.
Learning from Lopez about the public health effects of the policies that lead to workplace raids was mind-blowing for Harris. “Obviously we’re hearing about children in cages and deportation, but then I learned all the details about fear tactics, how one day they felt safe, and the next day they didn’t,” she says. “Seeing the impact on people and communities is different than hearing the numbers.”
Says Lopez: “We need community, a social network, and family to be happy and healthy.” When people are detained in cages they are stripped of these necessities for health, and Lopez’s research illustrates the ill-health effects of these separations. But it’s not just literal detention that causes poor health in communities affected by this kind of carceral control. “Its tendrils are wrapped around us even when we are not in these cages,” Lopez says.
The scene is benign, cheerfully normal—even the neat stacks of zipties inside the donut box seem harmless. But here the tools of a workplace collude with the carceral state: In one raid in Ohio, workers were lured to a room under false pretenses, then were captured and detained.
Accuracy in depicting these moments was paramount, both to the team and to Ortiz. “It’s really hard to capture so many things at once in an illustration. So it’s always my instinct to do a comic. In the beginning, it’s kind of like playing telephone,” Ortiz says. “I had to constantly bug the researchers and ask them if the details I include are actually what they saw… There are so many versions of the story,” she says, and getting this story right mattered.
Stories of the raids often begin on a day like any other,” Lopez says, “‘We were eating dinner, and suddenly—.’ Raids can happen in the middle of any given day, and that’s what’s captured so well in this picture,” Lopez says. In Spanish, atentos a todo means that everyone is alert, always on watch.
Lopez calls this perpetual worry “hypervigilance,” and it’s proven to cause health problems ranging from the endocrine system to sleeping disorders. “I’m from the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas, but my family’s story is complicated,” Ortiz says. “And my own health was affected by my immigration experience.”
“It’s not just the workplace affected by these raids. Their effects travel home, to school, to churches, to community spaces, Ortiz says.
After a raid, a church might become, as depicted by Ortiz’s stained glass window triptych, a food pantry, a place to mourn, and a place to organize and exchange information with legal professionals.
Lopez describes the people who seek the safety of churches: “These are the women and children who pick up the pieces in the aftermath of men disappearing in a raid. I say ‘disappearing men,’ as men tend to do the manual labor jobs where these raids happen.”
Tareas, which means “homework” in Spanish, represents the compounding labor created by raids. Suddenly, a family is down a breadwinner. Suddenly, there’s no childcare. Suddenly, a mother is filling out paperwork in order to meet with a lawyer after a long day of her own work. Meanwhile, the ongoing work of children’s homework, cooking dinner, and emotional caregiving continues and piles up in the background.
“I wanted these layered images to have conversations,” Ortiz says. “The kid has homework, the mom has the homework of reaching out to lawyers, and the daughter is taking care of everyone. What doesn’t get done?”
The Carceral State Project builds upon foundations laid by scholars, activists, and communities at U-M and beyond who have long worked to serve the needs of incarcerated communities while combating the prison system. Many people contribute to this project, including Residential College professors Ashley Lucas and Mary Heinen; Natalie Holbrook, program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan; and history of art graduate students Madeleine Aquilina and Dylan Volk and undergraduates Lillian McCuddy and Jamaica Jordan. Future LSA stories will explore other facets of the Carceral State Project.
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A high school internship at U-M introduced Nur to his passion for biomedical research. Now he’s an MCDB major in LSA pursuing a career in cancer research. Your generosity creates new opportunities for learning and innovation and allows us to maintain our deeply held values of exploration, common good, and inclusion. Help LSA meet the moment by making a gift today.