Oral History Research Project

The Women Transcending Oral History Research Project (OHRP) aims to document and raise up the leadership and organizing efforts of incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and directly impacted women in the context of mass incarceration.

Led by a collective of formerly incarcerated women, the project serves as a model for making visible the strength of women’s leadership in the struggle to end mass incarceration.

OHRP currently consists of two projects documenting the successful organizing by women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to bring back college to prison following the elimination of the federal and state grants in the 1990s.

Oral History and Archiving

Oral history interviews with the women involved in bringing college back to  Bedford Hills, as well as a material archive of documents, photos, and other related materials will highlight themes of leadership, community and collaboration -- behind, across, through, and beyond the bars -- as well as the success and impact of the college program.

The very intentional decisions around collecting, preserving, making available, and utilizing these archival materials and oral histories are being documented with the idea of producing a written / multimedia process piece to include in a tool-kit for others seeking to document similar histories. 

Network Analysis

Clear from these oral histories is the network forged by women involved in building the College Program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, grounded in commitments of love, growth, and justice. Seeds and offshoots came before and alongside the College Program, but the empowering nature of education catalyzed this community of care. They made unspoken promises to themselves and each other to work for positive change, and to reach out, across, and back, to uplift the sisters who came behind them. The women have carried these commitments out of the prison into direct services, government, activism, advocacy, healthcare, housing, and higher education. The legacies of their efforts can be felt culturally, legislatively, materially both in local communities, across the country, and around the world. We hope to make visible and map out these relationships, the leadership development, and growth of community through a network analysis study.

The Columbia University Movements Against Mass Incarceration Lab selected the Women Transcending Oral History Research Project among its inaugural projects to support the network analysis project in collecting oral histories related to this community growth and leadership development in prison. We will be seeking additional support to ensure that we can see this project through not only as an academic study, but as an exhibition of artwork created by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists that renders visible the reach and power of the relationships and work these women did and continue to do to positively transform our society, from on-the-ground service work in their communities, to policy and legislative change, to scholarship and shifting the academy, to larger cultural shifts. 

Degrees of Freedom 

We have wrapped production on Degrees of Freedom, our documentary short film on the successful organizing of women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to bring college back to the facility after tough-on-crime legislation in the mid-1990s effectively eliminated higher education in prisons nationwide. Through the Visualizing Abolition Initiative, we recently had the incredible opportunity to preview and discuss Degrees of Freedom with women detained in the Santa Cruz jails. We want to do more of this kind of screening and talkback -- in schools, colleges, community organizations, jails and prisons. 

Degrees of Freedom:The History of the Bedford Hills Prison College Program