Charlotte Rosen is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. She is currently a Northwestern University Presidential Fellow. She was previously a Franke Graduate Fellow with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Her dissertation, Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000, uses Pennsylvania as a case study to examine the untold history – and challenge – of prison overcrowding and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century United States.
A fierce believer in the importance of public humanities, Charlotte has bylines in The Washington Post, The Nation, n+1, and Truthout. She is also an Associate Editor for the official blog of the Urban History Association, The Metropole, where she co-produced with Dr. Matthew Guariglia a virtual roundtable series on racist police violence, the Spring 2020 uprisings, and police abolition.
Charlotte is also a team member of Study and Struggle, an ongoing project to organize against incarceration and criminalization in Mississippi through four months of political education and community building, convening study groups both inside and outside prisons.
Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000
Using Pennsylvania as a case study, Charlotte’s dissertation examines the untold history of state prison overcrowding and the politics that this crisis of carceral incapacity produced. Far from an orderly roll-out of the postwar US carceral regime, the actual implementation of racialized mass imprisonment was far more unsettled than is commonly understood. The central dynamic of this more contested process of carceral state development was that state policymakers' desire to punish through mass incapacitation far outpaced state and local governments’ actual capacity to do so. The result was a crisis of prison overcrowding that afflicted state and local penal systems across the nation, leading imprisoned people and their allies to launch legal and extralegal challenges against overcrowded state prisons and county jails across the country.
In recovering this little-known history of late-twentieth century prison overcrowding and prisoner resistance in Pennsylvania, Charlotte demonstrates that the U.S. prison nation did not develop automatically or smoothly once the bipartisan “common sense” of tough-on-crime and carceral solutions became hegemonic. The late-twentieth century rush to punish and imprison with impunity clashed with state- and local-level fiscal constraints, the complicated and costly endeavor of state prison construction, and prisoner-initiated challenges to overcrowded state and local prisons. The result was a formidable crisis of carceral incapacity that created openings for imprisoned people and their allies to challenge and, at times, place meaningful limits on the racialized politics of law and order – an historical lesson that can serve as an inspiration and offer strategic guidance for movements to decarcerate today.