OC professors help preserve federal prison histories

Melissa Munn and Chris Clarkson
Melissa Munn and Chris Clarkson

What started as an impromptu hallway discussion in 2012 led two Okanagan College professors to form an almost decade-long academic partnership, researching inmate publications from Canada’s Penal Press and collaborating on a book that was recently published by the University of Toronto Press.

OC Interdisciplinary Studies and Sociology Professor Melissa Munn and OC History Professor Chris Clarkson joined forces to create Disruptive Prisoners, a collective biography which reconstitutes the histories of Canada’s federal prison system in the mid-twentieth century. Munn and Clarkson bring this social history to fruition after years of extensive archival research, penal press material and government document reviews and  interviews with various stakeholders.

The book is grounded by the lived experiences of incarcerated men, which Munn and Clark were able to curate by heading to prison themselves to meet with inmates.

“I’m not sure Chris knew exactly what he was getting into when we started this project,” says Munn. “He’s now been to prison – more than once – and met a whole crew of radical academics and activists from around the world.”

Munn and Clarkson come from different disciplines and methods of researching. Collaborating on this project was a learning process for both of them and one that resulted in amazing results.

“We began by dividing up the work and writing separate chapters and afterwards re-wrote them together – which involved a lot of rethinking ideas and rewriting,” explains Clarkson. “It’s much more labour-intensive than writing on your own since it forces you to constantly consider each other's ideas and perspectives. Of course, the result is a book that’s better than either of us could have produced independently and one that integrates the insights and methodology of both social history and critical criminology.”

“Working with a historian challenged me to learn new approaches to research and I really loved that,” says Munn. “It forced me to look at things from a new angle and also become more certain with my disciplinary expertise.”

Munn currently runs the Penal Press website and has been interested in preserving these histories for quite some time. It was her passion to make sure these types of histories survive that hooked Clarkson to join in the efforts.

“I’ve always been interested in the historical experiences of the residents of institutions like orphanages, asylums or old age homes, but most of those histories are written using documents produced by administrators and you rarely even get the tiniest glimpse into the perspectives of the residents,” explains Clarkson. “The prisoners’ newspapers offer an exciting new window on life within prisons and allowed us to look into the operation of prisons in a way that hasn’t been possible in the study of other institutions.”

The book has already received praise:

“A fascinating new analysis of Canadian prison history, with a focus on the voice of federal prisoners. The newsmagazines of the incarcerated – the ‘penal press’ – offer us a riveting window into how ‘progressive’ reforms played out on the ground. This is a critical contribution to our ongoing debate over ‘prison reform’ or ‘prison abolition.’”

Constance Backhouse, University Professor and
University Research Chair at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa

Disruptive Prisoners can be ordered online via the University of Toronto Press. Click below to read a detailed description, preview the book, recommend to your library and to order the book.

Disruptive Prisoners website

Published By Public Affairs on August 17, 2021