Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports are created by recipients of research travel stipends and by many others who have conducted research at the RAC. The reports demonstrate the breadth of the RAC's archival holdings, particularly in the study of philanthropy and its effects. Read more about the history of philanthropy at resource.rockarch.org. Also, see the RAC Bibliography of Scholarship, a comprehensive online database of publications citing RAC archival collections.
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Prison Plastic Surgery: The Biopolitics of Appearance and Crime in New York’s Civil Rights Era

December 4, 2023

From 1920 to 1990, around 500,000 US incarcerees received free plastic surgery during their incarceration. The majority of the surgeries — which included facelifts, rhinoplasty, chin implants, blepharoplasties, breast implants, etc. — were performed for purely cosmetic reasons, under the broad banner of prisoner rehabilitation. The underlying notion was to assist marginalized individuals in assimilating into society by capitalizing on prevailing beauty biases. New York was an early prison plastic surgery pioneer, alongside other rehabilitative offerings, but these programs were not without controversy. Concerned, in 1968, Governor Nelson Rockefeller charged the Department of Crime Control Planning to investigate the long-term outcomes of various recidivism programs, a project that spanned five years and covered 231 methodologies. This research report outlines the early emphasis on prisoner beautification, and the broader shift in carceral policies from rehabilitative to punitive, based on a review of records in the Rockefeller Archive Center pertaining to correctional reform, access to healthcare, and civil rights issues. This report summarizes my preliminary findings from the archives, and adds additional context to my book, Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery In Prisons, (Prometheus Books, 2021), which explored the history of criminal reform through the lens of beauty and bias.  Using records, the majority unearthed from the Joint Commission on Correctional Manpower and Training in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Gubernatorial Records, along with records from the Bureau of Social Hygiene, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund archives, I discuss rehabilitative ideals and lookism, intermingled with political wrangling and efficacy in twentieth-century New York. My work deals with correctional healthcare and surgery, but more broadly, it is about the shift from a rehabilitative to a punitive approach to crime. As contemporary discourse returns to the importance of rehabilitation, the insights presented in this research will foster current conversations and enable us to learn from the past. 

Crime and Criminal Justice; Ford Foundation; Nelson A. Rockefeller Gubernatorial Records; Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Health-Related Prison Conditions in the Progressive and Civil Rights Eras: Lessons from the Rockefeller Archive Center

September 23, 2020

During my 2019 visit to the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), I viewed papers from more than a dozen collections, which provided perspective on how health, incarceration, politics, and policy intermingled in the twentieth century. In this report, I offer an overview of my book project, Minimal Standards of Adequacy: A History of Health Care in Modern U.S. Prisons, and analyze how portions of it will be informed by two sets of documents from the RAC. I focus first on records contained in the Bureau of Social Hygiene records, which shed light on the perspectives of Progressive Era penologists who helped to shape ideals and practices related to prison health in specific institutions, as well as in state and federal correctional systems. Next, I discuss findings from the papers of Winthrop Rockefeller, who served as governor of Arkansas from 1966 to 1970, when federal courts deemed conditions within the state's prison system unconstitutional. While I continue to undertake research for the book, this report serves as a snapshot of my current reading of select sources from two different moments in the history of US prisons. It suggests the extent to which, throughout the twentieth century, carceral institutions posed tremendous health threats to the increasing numbers of people inside them, even as radical advocates urged drastic change, and as reformers, corrections professionals, and political representatives called for more rules, regulations, and bureaucracy.

Bureau of Social Hygiene; Crime and Criminal Justice; Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial; Medicine and Healthcare; Rockefeller Family; Rockefeller University; Winthrop Rockefeller Papers

The Making of the "Carceral State": Race, Punitive Politics, and the Changing Logic of Incarceration, New York, 1956-1986

January 1, 2010

In 1970 there were slightly less than 200,000 people incarcerated in the United States. By 2007, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated, and the total number of Americans under criminal justice supervision, including juveniles, people in jail or on parole or probation, exceeded seven-million, or one in a hundred American adults. This dramatic surge in American reliance on incarceration was not inevitable or even predictable. In fact, the origins of mass incarceration were rooted in a period of great doubt about the very utility of prisons that emerged in the mid- twentieth century. How, then, did Americans move toward a total reinvestment in an institution that many experts had declared a failure; and how did they come to accept and indeed embrace the punitive, retributive, hard-line penal philosophy that bolstered mass incarceration?

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