Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Women's and Gender Studies


Michelle Fine

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Nature and Society Relations | Poetry


will, poetry, archive, progress, prisons, abolition


This long-form poetry project follows the human will — in this case the “criminal,” or captive will — as it is manhandled through an archive of reverends, wardens and superintendents narrating the future of prison reform. Drawing primarily from National Prison Association Conference archives between the years 1874 and 1895, these documents saturate the work with a will resistant but compelled towards subjugation by the state — as it appears within the text across forced labor economies, eugenic prison science that dictates starvation, classification, and isolation as the rule, the dehumanization of banal bureaucratic processes, the visceral and spectacular violence of prison torture, the marking of the record, and the exploitation of prison communication industries — and the mundane act of living-in-spite-of that is both survival and its transcendence. Drawing from the knowledges of sound studies, radical geography, and critical race theory, this work locates the haptic violence of the official archive not merely in its literal and often spectacular form inflicted and only sometimes documented in the record, but in the way in which the captive and future-captive will is handled, groped, circulated, re/produced, and erased across prison archives.

As prison reformers across the country looked to the North for the outcomes of various reformist experiments — indeterminate sentencing, conditional release, parole supervision — individuals incarcerated in prisons expressed their refusal of the given condition of the prison itself, both explosively and in the mundane quotidian gestures and speech acts that are threaded into carceral life. Considered closely in this text is Elmira Reformatory superintendent Zebulon Brockway, whose “expertise” in prison science paved the way for many now-naturalized prison conditions and protocol. This poem considers him both in his early role as purveyor of a eugenic prison science and later role as an under-investigation, exposed sadist, singled out as exceptional (though ultimately welcomed back into History’s fold) as a means to support the continuation of the carceral project. Are the entanglements of his legacy helpful to us? How can we understand his violence as intrinsic to every reform ideal he championed, thought to be progress? What existing abolitionist imaginaries live in the archive, forever refusing the notion that a “kinder prison” was and is the answer to captivity violence and victimization writ large? How do both of Brockway’s positions — the way he spoke about the human will and the spectacular images of violence inscribed in his records — produce a narrative that re-victimizes the carceral subject in the archive? How might this poem resist or fall into the same such traps?