Interview with Justin Piché
The prison walls aren’t just there to keep prisoners in, they’re there to keep us out.
The broader question that guides my work is whether the different ideas that circulate society legitimize the use of incarceration and other forms of punishment.
My colleague, Kevin Walby from the University of Victoria, and I are examining penal history museums as one form of popular culture that creates dominant meanings about incarceration, and the experience of imprisonment. When I’m thinking of penal history museums, I think about for instance in the States, the most famous one being tours of Alcatraz, while in Canada we have places like the federal penitentiary museum in Kingston. These link up to movies like The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, television shows like Oz and Prison Break.
This is often the closest that the public gets to understanding what prisons are like.
People should care about cultural representations because it informs our view, it shapes how we think, how we conceptualize and how we respond to criminalized conflicts and harms, and it’s important to understand why it is that we do what we do, rather than just taking for granted the existence of these institutions.
I’m also doing a project on the penal geography of Kingston. I’m hoping to identify why it is, the majority of federal penitentiaries built in the Ontario region, have been established in Kingston. I’m looking at how the architecture of those institutions has impacted the lives of prisoners and prison staff, and then also looking at how these spaces have impacted and shaped the regional identity of Kingston.
What I’m trying to get out in my research is to try and find out why it is that we take these institutions for granted. Why we don’t question their existence. These institutions have often been prone to failure in terms of their own objectives, and why hasn’t that led to a radical questioning of the existence of those institutions in society?
One of the things I’m privileged to be involved in, is the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. The purpose of the journal is to bring together the experiences of prisoners from the perspective of prisoners themselves. I think the journal offers an important forum to allow us to kind of understand what’s happening in those places.
The main impact I’m hoping that my research will have is that it will contribute to public discussions and public understanding of what we currently criminalize and punish. And perhaps that will open up additional space for conceptualizing and responding to these issues differently.
I’m extremely proud to have been awarded the SSHRC Aurora Prize. To be recognized by peers, from across the Social Sciences and Humanities, is humbling.