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Incorrigibles is a transmedia project that tells the stories of ‘incorrigible’ girls in the United States over the last 100 years – beginning with New York State. The teams draw on the personal narratives of young women in “the system” to investigate the history and present state of youth justice and social services for girls.
Arlene Tucker met with Alison Cornyn, the director of the project, to learn more about her motivation, inspiration and process.
HOW IT STARTED
Arlene Tucker (AT): Hello Alison! Thank you for meeting with me.Could you start but telling me a little but about the project?
Alison Cornyn (AC): Hi Arlene! It’s nice to meet you. So the project started back in 2011 and it wasn't the Incorrigible. I started Prison public memory project with colleagues and it was right when Governor Cuomo in New York said he was just going to close seven prisons because economically they didn't make sense. And having worked around criminal justice issues and mass incarceration for many years starting with a documentary back in 2001 called 360 degrees I realized that very often communities that have prisons in the States when the prison closes they have this kind of knee jerk reaction. They want to keep them open and either make them private or make them jails or not really think about what could be more healthy for their community, but just want to maintain the status quo. So we started thinking if we could work with communities before prison closed and help them understand how it got there in the first place that they could envision what they wanted when it closed.
So we started working thinking that this prison - Hudson Correctional in New York -would close and it turns out it didn't close. But in the process of researching it I realized that it had opened in the late eighteen hundreds as a women's house of refuge. And then from 1904-1975 it became what was called The New York State Training School for Girls which is really a euphemism for a young woman's prison. And then in seventy five it became this medium security men's prison. I was doing an installation on the prison grounds in a mansion that used to be the superintendent’s house called the Bronson house. And the superintendent who had been there in the 70s had moved out because he felt it was too fancy - the girls had to work as servants to clean the place and keep it up and things like that. So he moved to a smaller house on the grounds and his place fell into disrepair.
AT: And what is the purpose of the house now?
AC: Historic Hudson is trying to keep it from from disintegrating. They rent it out as a movie set so they could use that money to keep it. They don't want to make it a museum. I think they want to make it a meeting space and they want to create a park around it. It's a little difficult because it's still on prison grounds and it's still a functional prison. And what makes it even more complicated is apparently there's a shooting range on the grounds where the local police practice shooting. Soo on weekdays between 2 and 4 no one can go in there because you know there's the possibility of a stray bullet.
There's no running water, there's no electricity. It's open twice a year because Historic Hudson gives architecture tours in it because the building is architecturally notable. And I asked if we could do an installation in in the space as the architecture tours went on. So around the time I was trying to figure out what the installation would be because often I use technology in work but there was no electricity no it just we had to keep things really simple. Around that time there's a thrift shop owner in Hudson who goes to different yard sales and and things to find clothing and other other old things to sell in her store. And she found in a yard sale for for five dollars this box of documents. Turns out they had been spirited out of this institution when it was the New York State Training School for Girls. They were intake forms, medical records, and some personal photographs.
She shared those documents and I started piecing together which documents related to which girls and trying to thread their stories together through these. And so I ended up doing an installation in the Bronson house where I pieced together the stories of six of the girls. I also learned that also Ella Fitzgerald a famous singer had been at this institution in the thirties around the same time that the documents of this box of other girls were there. So (in my installation) Ella got her own room and each of these girls got their own room. I created larger-than-life portraits of them on archival paper that hung from the ceiling and then recreated the documents in the box and threw them around on the ground in the same way they'd been left to the dust of history to probably be destroyed like most of the other documents.
In the course of doing this installation and working with these documents I realized that for me it was really important to tell the stories of these girls and make sure that their lives weren't lost. As I was going through the documents you see that many of the girls were physically, abused, sexually abused and they are the ones that were sent away rather than the abusers. And then in one case, the girl was 12 and her mother and stepfather I guess ran a boarding house and they married her off by selling her to one of the boarders at 12 so her parents were eventually arrested and sent to prison for for selling this girl. And so she was sent to an orphanage. And so she was talking about being married at 12 and having sex at 12 and they said that she was going to corrupt the morals of the other children in the orphanage. So she was then sent to the training school - this kind of prison like space to protect the other kids that she was talking with. And what's interesting is when she gets there there's a copy of a letter she wrote home, it's a letter to her mother where she asks about how her grandparents are and talks about you know how when she got to the place they played games and it's almost as if she's not acknowledging what happened to her. And I don't know if somebody was looking over her shoulder telling her what to write or if she was in denial what had happened to her. There’re those kinds of questions I think remain to be understood. So I started thinking about how we can understand what's changed and what's not for young women who are incarcerated or end up in the social service system in the States.
As I started putting some of the research online I was taken by the lives of these girls and I decided rather than continuing to work on the project about prisons closing in communities reinvigorating things I wanted to do a project about the past, present and future of young women's incarceration in the US.
And so Incorrigibles was born out of their stories and those documents. I started putting research online on a simple website and then people started writing in who would say: "I was at this place" because it didn't close till 1975.
So the girls whose stories were in the box from the ‘tens, ‘20s, ‘30s have all passed away, including Fitzgerald. But there're women from the 60s and 70s that wanted to tell their stories. And also people were writing in because now with all these genealogical search programs people were finding that they had mothers and grandmothers and aunts who had been at this place and they want to know what it was why they were there. So I was helping write Freedom of Information Act letters to the New York state archives, but there’s not much left in it for the most part in terms of the records. I think that most of them were destroyed.
The name of the project came about because for so many of the girls, this one woman Lyla in particular - her offence was “being incorrigible”. I remember I photographed Ella Fitzgerald's intake piece for Nina Bernstein at The Times. So Ella's offence was "ungovernable" and will not obey the just and lawful commands of her mother - a judged delinquent. So what's interesting is that at the time she was sent there from what I understand the her mother had passed away. She was living with an aunt and an abusive uncle. And like many girls even today when there is abuse happening in the household very often they run away. In the States those are called status offences where if you're not an adult, a status offence like running away, being truant from school (where if you're older than 18 wouldn't be grounds for incarceration) can get girls sent away. So I started doing oral history interviews with women that were writing in and wanted to share their stories.
I was really interested to try to understand what was happening in their lives and in the lives of their families before they were at the Training School, and what it was like at this place. And then since then - what's that they've gone on to do. And the stories are so so so different and as are the women and they're amazing. And for the most part the women want to share their stories with young women today who may be going through some of similar things to let them know they're not alone in there. Because in so many cases it's there was a silencing that still happens through fear and intimidation and feeling like you don't have power.
AT: And not understanding of why they were sent away, how can they talk about that?
AC: Some had a sense that they were running away they were acting out but very often what was becoming more focused on today is not the actions but why why people are doing those actions like if somebody is acting out, if they're angry, if they're running away, if they're not going to school why are they doing that? There's something going on with them personally and very often in their families. That's that needs to be dealt with. And rather than the girl being punished for that action, because the action isn't the problem. So that's beginning to be understood more. But it's still there's quite a way to go I think before we really can deal with that properly.
One woman Liz who was sent there for being incorrigible, she talks about not knowing what that word meant and looking it up many many years later. But basically she was angry and she admits to being angry but she was separated from her family. There were five siblings when she was about seven years old her grandmother died. The house was lost, then her mother passed away. Her father was alcoholic. And so the kids all went to the Catholic Charities that took them up, put them in foster homes. She was sent to a home all by herself and there she was physically and sexually abused. She talks about how she became angry that she would act out all the time because here she was not able to protect herself. And there's all these things happening to her. Her life was very difficult. When she got out she ended up marrying her pimp and was in an adult prison eventually for what may have been an attempted murder. But she came out and and what's amazing about Liz. She she also had substance abuse issues. She began to be involved with 12 step programs. And so every day she would go to a 12 step meeting. And when she passed away her partner invited me to her funeral. There were hundreds of people there. And so and people were telling stories about her and she had been kind of a mentor to so many people and she had touched so many lives when she was alive.
There's another woman Lillian who was sent to the training school. I'm trying to help her find the sentencing records. She was living in the Bronx at the time and apparently her records were in a warehouse that burnt down. And so we're still trying to see if that's true because she doesn't know why she was sent away. And she wants to understand her sentence because she was being sexually abused by her father. And she started kind of talking about it to a friend's mother and the next thing you know she's being kept home from school. And and so she's truant. And she is is being sent to the training school because she's not going to school but she's not allowed to go to school. So she wants to know what her father said about her and what the judge was deemed as her offence so that's that's still in process.That was in either of the late 60s or the early 70s.
AT: Her inquiry is still in process?
AC: Her inquiry is still in process.
AC: Language is so important to this project and the language of how a young woman is deemed something. Even the term incorrigible sounded so old fashioned to me I didn't think it was used anymore and then I looked up just to double check: “unable to be reformed or corrected”. Research has showed that 70 percent of those girls are marked today still as incorrigible. And I had wanted to have young women be involved when the exhibition was up at the Bronson House and almost stand in for the women whose schools are no longer with us but whose stories need to be shared.
We did these theatre workshops and and socio drama workshops and I was really interested in this investigation of language and for the girls to do their own research into archival documents because how often you get to do that. So I told them some of the stories of the girls and they decided whose story they wanted to investigate further. And so they got packages of documents and they would get together and that's what this picture is, and meeting in groups and creating simple theatrical scenes based on these girls lives and on their own.
What I'm really interested in is the language that people outside of the girls use to define them and confine them. And so the girls were really interested in that too so we came up with this list of words that were used yesterday and today through these documents but also in their own personal experience to label them and what words they wanted to use to define themselves. And that's become a huge part of this project because of self-definition. And that kind of ability to speak for yourself is so important.
These are the words that we that the girls came up with that were that they found and that or that they were used to decide to define themselves that were outside of them.
And then these are the words that they used to define themselves and these other girls who they were researching
determined courageous and free spirited
And then there was a performance that we invited the public to and then we had a community conversation where the girls led the conversation about youth justice then and now, whatever anybody wanted to talk about in relation to that.
And so these words came up also in the course of that that presentation. We reached out to organizations that are working with young women around the country who are doing writing programs and arts programs. And the first piece we got in is is incredible: It's this woman who's in prison it's not in New York but but she said that throughout her youth she was called an abomination and she was called an abomination because she was growing up in an age in the 90s. She was a young woman a young person in the 90s and she was a boy who wanted to be a girl. And so so the abomination came from that. Everywhere she went that was the word that people would use to define her.
And how she is
irrepressibleAnd that's the word that she uses for herself.
At the New York State Training School for Girls there were as many as 15000 girls that did time there over the periods that it was open because there would there were as many as as as like 550 or 600 girls at a time at its height. The age would be eleven to 16 and sometimes a little beyond that.
And very often the girls would stay there for two years. I've asked the women about what kind of training was there and from what I understand there wasn't much academics. There was a lot of home economics, there was sewing, there was cooking, furniture making bookmaking. What is interesting though is that some women talk about the abuse and how horrible it was. When Ella Fitzgerald was there in the 1930s they were segregating the black girls in two of the cottages and having them do all the laundry and all the work and there was a lawsuit that was brought against the institution and that they had to stop. Ella Fitzgerald was invited back by the superintendent to perform or meet the girls and she said she wanted nothing to do with the place that had been a really bad part of her memory and her history.
And so there was the use of solitary confinement. There was a lot of of of things that aren't that we know of.
AT: And what about recidvism rate?
AC: That's a really good question. In these books where you can see when each girl went in can see if girls were sent back or did end up back there and actually one of them as I interviewed in the 70s she was there twice. The way it works is very often the girls would do a home visit and the home wasn't a safe place to return to. They would be paroled to a job and especially in 20s and 30s, a job as a mother's helper or as a maid in a hotel or some kind of servant job like that. And in some cases you see that the girls would run away from the job or they would burn the ironing or something.
And in one case there's girl who was sent back. She was a mother's helper and that woman says "she burns the toast. I can't do anything with her" and then so she was embroiled as a maid in a hotel. Whether she was doing that on purpose so she could be free? You know you really wonder. But the girls when they were paroled at least back in the 20s and 30s because we have these documents they would have to write back to the institution every month and show how much money they made what they spent it on and kind of report, what their month was like. So it turns out a lot of girls went on to get married because then they wouldn't have to report back to the institution.
AT: One question came to mind: I'm thinking, is this also part of learning social skills, of how to get along with others? From an educator perspective that's what came into my mind.
AС: If they had the proper staff they could have facilitated that it could have been really helpful in some cases maybe for some of the girls. Some of the women I spoke to talk about how they benefited from being there. It wasn't all bad. Some people said it was it was a stable environment. “I learned how to cook” or you know “my grandmother was an incredible seamstress” or they were taken out of a really abusive situation that they were trying to run away from it but they didn't know where to go so. And then in other places talk about the abuse and the lack of of proper care, punishments and those kinds of things. So there’ was both though it also depends on the girl and the time of their life. I mean an eleven year old is completely different from a 16 year old.
Together with an intern we went through public ancestry database and we've put in around twenty five hundred names because in their census starting in 1905 - 1945 and in Hudson in the training school all those girls were listed as inmates. And even some of their babies as some girls were sent there because they were pregnant. And so you have this inmate she’s point five years old.
So this information is on our website. And so people are seeing that a relative was at the near State Training School they want to talk about that to either understand more or share the story of that family member. I recently met with this woman who's based in Florida but she was in New Jersey for a family reunion and her great grandmother was at the training school in 1910. And so we spoke about the generational impact of a young woman's incarceration. And in her case it was kind of this generations of institutionalization from orphanages to mental institutions to continued incarceration. And she's really interested in the generational impact of trauma and trying to map that out. Studies about that are being done that neuroscience and epigenetics and I want to include these also as context on the website.
AT: How do you connect the past the present and the future ?
AC: Whenever we do an exhibition we try and do a public program and these really are about connecting the past and the present the future. But at the exhibition in Troy at the time which was called “Dislocations: artists respond to mass incarceration”. So there was for artists all working with people who've been incarcerated in various ways - they asked me to do a public program and. And Beth ??? actually helped facilitate it with me. Beth who did the book Finding It is an amazing artist in her own right. She did a wand making workshop and that's a project that kind of came to me. I and some people think it's completely crazy but I think it's really important. I had been at a retreat years ago and there was a table that if you want and you can make a wand and. And so I made a wand and I loved making it and I still have it. It was really important and so I started it really the idea I guess came from those.
Liz is the woman who was separated from her family and sent to an abusive foster home when she was very young. So when I had a conversation with Liz she was talking about how she never had a childhood and she never had she never had a tiara. She never had a princess costume she never did dress up she never had Christmas she never got presents she never had what she thought was a proper childhood. And so I think the ones I one of the first ones I had a wand making workshop in the Hunter gallery did have did an exhibition about women in prison. I also did a workshop there was the first wand-making workshop and people were invited to make those for themselves or for women who have been training school. So we made some amazing ones. I just I decided to make a wand for Liz and because I felt like that could be the representation of her childhood. And I put little things on it that were very like things she'd talked about having missed - little charms. And the sad thing is I was never able to give her the wand she passed away before I gave it to her. I brought it to go to her memorial service and I gave it to her partner who loves the wand.
[00:05:42] But last the last one making workshop was was was the people that came to it were all men and women young and old. Small group that had been formerly incarcerated and they made ones for themselves and their ones who were It's interesting how people interpret it differently. They they're ones where the stories of their lives and and so they started with like one. One young man in particular his kid glued all these broken glass shards of glass onto the handle of his wand and then it and and then you know the ends of it were. Keep the stars on. But anyway it's I can show you some of the ones but there's something about creating a wand to reclaim your power. And in Houston it's a different kind of a storytelling device. And potentially a therapeutic one.
AT: And what about you? I realised I don't know about your history and how you got here..
[00:16:54] I think the criminal justice stuff came from when I had gone to graduate school at NYU and interactive telecommunications program. I'd come out and then I was starting to use the web as a space for storytelling about issues and starting a little studio called Picture Projects with this one Sue who was in graduate school with me. So we did some projects with other artists and filmmakers and educators and we thought you know what if we did a project of our own. Like, what's the biggest social issue that that that exists today that we could address? I had read a book called "The Real War on Crime" edited by this lawyer named Steven Donziger and it looked at the state of the criminal justice system in the US and some of the essays compared the US choices the U.S. had made in relation to other countries. And you could see that the trajectory of incarceration had gone up multiple from the 1970s to under 200000 people to you know by 2000 the 2 million person to be about to be incarcerated.
[00:18:16] So we thought that it encompassed so many other social issues of race, class, economics, education system in the US so we decided we were going to do a documentary about the criminal justice system. And people thought we were insane. It's a very large topic and nobody knew what a web documentary was really because it was 2000. The Web hadn't been out for that long. And but but we ended up creating this site called 360 degrees perspectives on the U.S. criminal justice system where the heart of the site was stories told from five or six different peoples involved around one person's incarceration: person in prison, guard, family member, victim's family, social workers, judges, wardens, corrections officers and into these stories we're told from all these different peoples perspectives and in which which complicated the stories because I remember presenting the project once at NYU and once said where is their hands. What do you want me to think. I said I want you to decide what to think. You know because you need to be able to hear where different people are coming from and the only way we're going to really be able to move forward is to be able to understand why somebody feels so passionately about you know their own way of thinking and to acknowledge that and then make and then move forward.
So that project was supposed to be a yearlong project and ended up being five years or even longer. And people started thinking that picture projects was 360 and 360 was a kind of a criminal justice organizations would write or call in and ask for help and this or that and I would kind of direct them to two different different organizations or places but in the course of working on that and and working on the stories and meeting people and understanding the deep deep injustice of this justice system it really kind of took me. And so most of my projects since then have have been involved around incarceration in some ways.
And I was going to criminal justice conferences to learn more and to get advisers and to think about what the most important stories were. And it was in 2000 and in 2001 the two millionth person was about to be incarcerated in the US. And I was really struck by that number and how huge it was. But then also how statistics hit you and then they kind of wash over you and you kind of don't know what to do with them anymore. And so. So in parallel with 360 where you were doing interviews and photographs and much more documentary I went to Coney Island and I got a bag of sand and I decided I was going to count two million grains of sand to really understand how much that meant so I brought it back to my apartment.
I ended up counting for two weeks and and I counted 10000 grains of sand in two weeks took my full time job and it filled up a straw, four inches, like a drinking straw.
[00:01:13] And and so I realized that that one I wanted in order to really understand the prison population that would be important to count the population of the world. And a then I would need to bring people on to count because it would be impossible to count as for one person. So I started a project called The Sand counting laboratory
I was on a residency in Czech Republic in an old monastery. There was this space that was a hexagon shaped with this huge arched windows and I filled that with sand and just put a table in the middle. I had a I had a video clicking off the real time population of the world and then another counter with the counting of the prison population. People could come in and put on a white lab coat and count sand. People would come in and just do that.
[00:02:21] And I realized in the process though that rather than trying to get to two million or reach any one number one it's constantly in flux, that it would be more important as a process piece and as a place to think about the issues than to try and reach the goal of getting to the number 2 million which was problematic to begin with. So I ended up not keeping the sand that was counted at the end of an installation that would kind of go back into the pile.
It was kind of absurd. Initially I always had a little magnifying glass which helps to see the sand but not totally. So in Michigan I chose to put the installation in in a greenhouse in the Life Sciences Building. And so one of the scientists came in and I explained this project and said “You need a microscope”. The next thing I know I went in the next day and there was this big microscope. So the students were using that to count and it was really amazing what they were able to see and and and so the final iteration of that was a seven foot cube steel room - a New York sand counting lab which the volume being the 6 billion at the time population of the world in Coney Island grains of sand would fit a seven foot cube and a seven foot that volume is what's given to an in in a prison cell. As the volumetric space and then people could come in and count and on the outside there was the population of the world.
I was introduced to someone who was working at the Museum of Natural History to do scanning electron microscope sand portraits of individual brains show how how unique they are really and how they need to be attended to.