I had a few people express interest in my work, if people think this is too self-centered, just move on and let the thread die. I’m putting it here because I don’t want to hijack any other thread.
As I said in the “Is it just me or…” thread, my dissertation is broadly on the history of youth institutionalization in Michigan. My current chapters explore:
- The opening of the first Michigan school for poor children (called the State Public School at Coldwater) in the mid 19th century. This was the first of its kind in the nation as the only qualification for being admitted was poverty. "delinquent" and "abnormal" children were not admitted. The state decided that a family was inadequately equipped to raise a child - either because of just poverty or a combination of social factors that were considered "corrupting" of a child. Children were either adopted out or, more commonly, "paroled" to a family to work as a farm hand, maid, or other low-wage help.
- The shift from Coldwater only accepting "mentally sound" children and expanding to include "feebleminded" children. Feebleminded is a term that broadly means mentally subpar in some way. It can be either in (perceived) low intelligence or because of moral or criminal transgressions. These children were taken from - again - "problematic" families and trained to become low-wage workers for local families. These children were not adopted out, only farmed out for their labor.
- The next shift was from "feebleminded" to more of what we consider petty juvenile delinquents today. I should add that these are all very messy categories and should not be seen as changing who is being targeted. The language is the primary thing that's changing. This is also the time that another facility opened up to house delinquent children from Detroit and surrounding places. During this time period, from the 20s through the 70s, children were "rehabilitated" until they could earn income for the facility and then they were paroled out. The horrifying twist here is that many of these teenagers were sterilized before release. The fear was that their children would be wards of the state as well, thus creating an economic and social burden on the general public. (If you've been following the news today, you'll see that a whistleblower report came out alleging mass hysterectomies in ICE facilities. This is not surprising. It is a practice that never ended.)
- The afterlives of institutions. This is during/after the deinstitutionalization movement - which for many was not actually a deinstitutionalization but rather a shift towards incarceration in penal institutions rather than merely institutionalization. As should not be a surprise to anyone, this shift from training to punishment coincided with the rise of children of color being institutionalized as compared to their white counterparts.
Once abandoned, the institutions were left to become objects of ghost tales. Or in the case of the Detroit area facility, it became a literal haunted house to generate revenue for the county. I explore the phenomenon of our cultural obsession with these “haunted” sites and what it says about how we view disability, institutionalization, etc. We like these places in part because we think of them as a relic of time long gone - when in actuality tens of thousands of young people are incarcerated on any given day. These children are locked away and forgotten while people pay to be entertained by the atrocities of supposedly historical events.
I don’t intend on going into a tenure-track career but rather plan on working with young people in some capacity. I have no idea what that looks like right now but I am gearing my dissertation to be accessible to non-academics as I want it to be read by individuals who work in the juvenile justice system.