BCRW @ 50

1990s: from stagnation to renewed anti-prison sentiments

While student publications in the 1980s suggested a huge departure from the critiques of the “pig courts of Amerikkka” in the early 1970s, the Women’s Center continued to host speakers on racial justice who would mention issues of carceral system into the 1990s, though with alarming sparsity compared to the fervor of student organizations of the 1970s. The Scholar and Feminist Conference XVII held in 1990 (“Apocalypse Now? Race and Gender in the Nineties”) featured Ruth Messinger’s talk, “Prospects for Race and Gender Relations in New York,” which voiced the continuous concern of Black populations in prison. The conference also featured Dr. Jocelyn Elders who spoke on white America’s neglect, and lack of commitment and care towards Black youth and infants, noting, among other shocking statistics, that 90% of prisoners in Attica prison were born to teen mothers. In 1996, the S&F XXII (“Our Families: A Feminist Response to Family Values”) featured a talk on family planning, with a mention of reproductive justice for women in prisons. Beyond occasional mentions, the issue of prisons did not take center stage in any conversations at BCRW throughout the early and mid 1990s. 

Meanwhile, students continued to echo carceral sentiments throughout Barnard student publications. Barnard Bulletin’s 1992 article, “Watch Out America,” stated that only a few percent of those involved in rape cases go to jail, creating a seemingly common-sense correlation between women’s liberation and incarceration, in which women’s liberation could be realized through the incarceration of individual perpetrators (a politics that is popularly dubbed today as “carceral feminism,” a term coined by Barnard Professor, Elizabeth Bernstein). The student group, “Partnership for a Drug Free America” cultivated a satirical “Top Ten Most Clueless People on Earth,” including, “Drivers with turn signal perpetually on,” “Javelin catcher,” as well as, “Millionaires in prison,” “unregistered voters,” and ending with number one, “Drug users.” 

What seemed to be a complete loss of the radical anti-prison movement of the 1970s suddenly reanimated in 1997 following the brutal police attack of Abner Louima, the founding of prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance, and the renewed national conversation around the violences of the carceral system. A 1997 Barnard Bulletin article titled, “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” focused on the cruelties of the prison system, and the 1998 Barnard yearbook gave first mention to the newly-formed group, “Students Helping Prisoners.” 1998 was also the year Columbia and Barnard participated in Washington D.C.’s Jericho March to free political prisoners in the U.S., and BCRW hosted a speaker who focused on the issue of sexual abuse of women in prisons. In 1999, the Barnard Bulletin published an advertisement from an incarcerated person seeking a pen pal, as well as an article about racial profiling and privilege in incarceration for drug offenses. By the turn of the new century, discourse around anti-prison work reignited among Barnard students and in BCRW’s programming. 

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