By Leah Veldhuisen ’19
History students are making strides to educate the large community of southern Colorado about mass incarceration, and why Colorado is an essential part of this discussion through a digital project called “Past, Present, Prison.”
Starting with the Social Issues and Historical Context Initiative in 2014, the “Past, Present, Prison” project was created by students in the Colorado College Department of History. The initiative is funded by a grant from an anonymous donor that provides $200,000 over three years. The initiative’s goal is to inform people on how history shapes current issues and focuses on creating courses on the history of prisons in Colorado, as well as inviting visiting speakers on the topic. This fall, the initiative is also putting on an exhibit at the I.D.E.A. Space called “Incarceration Nation.”
As a whole, the SIHC initiative’s goal is to engage CC students, faculty, and staff with the Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Canon City communities in conversations about the impact of prisons in southern Colorado. The “Past, Present, Prison” digital project is one of the main ways the grant is attempting to do so.
The project began, with help from the SIHC grant, in the history department with the goal of raising awareness of mass incarceration in the United States, and specifically how Colorado prisons play a role. Mass incarceration is a modern concept based on how quickly the prison industry is growing, the racial disparities within it, and the sheer numbers of incarcerated people. According to Carol Neel, professor of history, mass incarceration is a problem because “of a systematic racism and classism, and because the American people have let politicians blind them to the imprisonment of over two million of us.”
Helping young people learn about the past by demonstrating the connections between history and current issues is also an important aspect of the project. The digital project is a collaboration between students, faculty, and staff. On the “Past, Present, Prison” webpage, CC students have posted their extensive research pulled from archives of the Museum of Colorado Prisons and the Royal Gorge Museum and History Center, both in Canon City, Colorado. The two sets of archives cover many aspects of prison in a local and historical context.
The posted articles originated as papers written by students in the course Encountering the Past – The Long History of the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City, taught by Neel. The articles include topics such as the beginning of incarceration and criminalization, the economics of incarceration, and social dynamics in and around prisons. Right now, the webpage only contains the articles profiling the history of Colorado prisons, but the students hope to expand its reach. Neel explains that adding a blog to the project would aim to better engage the Colorado Department of Corrections in the conversation about mass incarceration and to explore the impact of the many prisons on the state of Colorado.