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Publication Date

Summer 2015

Degree Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Justice Studies


Alessandro De Giorgi

Subject Areas

Criminology; American studies; Ethnic studies


As the American prison-building enterprise continues into a fifth decade of expansion, it is imperative to analyze its widespread effects, particularly that of the record number of elderly prisoners who are dying behind bars. By focusing on the phenomenon described in this work as mass death in prisons, the goal of this project was to understand the historical roots of the power of absolute ownership over prisoners' bodies exercised by prison institutions. This project involved a multi-layered methodological approach that analyzed various sources, including scholarly literature, American case law, archival material, and personal correspondence. The use of these diverse and cross-disciplinary sources helped to establish an archive of how physiological death, civil death, and social death have functioned both historically and contemporarily inside of prisons. The opening chapter of this thesis is used to define and contextualize the problem of mass death inside of prisons and to argue that the issue is not simply quantitative, but also social and historical. The second chapter is used to construct a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between the world of prisons and free society. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters each analyze different aspects of how prisons and prisoners have responded to mass death. The conclusion articulates the limitations of physical resistance inside of prison and posits the importance of social memory as a form of non-corporal resistance to mass death.