64 Parishes

A Scholar and an Advocate

Marianne Fisher-Giorlando is the 2023 Lifetime Contributions to the Humanities awardee

Published: May 31, 2023
Last Updated: August 31, 2023

A Scholar and an Advocate

Photo by Elizabeth Biggs

Marianne Fisher-Giorlando.

There I was, with a degree in sociology in one hand and a divorce decree in the other.” In 1986 Marianne Fisher-Giorlando was ready for another new chapter. New Jersey-born Fisher-Giorlando had lived abroad as an Air Force wife and pursued a doctorate at The Ohio State University. At Ohio State, she had both taught prisoners and studied prisons as part of her research, developing an academic interest in prisons and their residents as well as an understanding of the need to recognize the humanity of those “in the system.” A position at Grambling State University was available, and Fisher-Giorlando moved to Louisiana.

In her decades in Louisiana, Fisher-Giorlando has served on the criminology faculty at Grambling and as an adjunct professor at Northwestern State University. She’s researched the social structures of Louisiana’s past and current prisons, focusing on the role of music in the cultural lives of the incarcerated and on the experiences of women, especially the enslaved, with her work appearing in both academic and general-audience publications (including 64 Parishes). She has served as a sort of unofficial research assistant for the Angolite, the magazine written and published by inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. (Incarcerated writers do not always have access to resources they need for their articles, and Fisher-Giorlando brought the research riches of websites and libraries into the Angolite offices.) A long-serving member of the board of the Angola Museum, Fisher-Giorlando has worked to preserve and update the small but important museum, pursuing less sensational interpretation and grants to support the museum’s move to a new site off prison grounds. (Technically retired, the indefatigable Fisher-Giorlando refers to her current work with the museum as a chance to be “more boots-on-the-ground.”)

Louisiana, often the “most incarcerated” state in the Union (depending on what Oklahoma does in a given year), offers a prison researcher ample opportunities for fieldwork. Fisher-Giorlando recognizes the complex moral space she occupies in this system: though no profiteer, she has benefited from the prison system in that her interesting and rewarding career has been possible because of Louisiana’s lock-‘em-up policies. Fisher-Giorlando works to pay this perceived debt by advocating for the rights of the incarcerated: helping tell their stories at the museum, helping them tell their stories with the Angolite, and never dismissing their humanity. Fisher-Giorlando reminds people making the drive through the beautiful Tunica Hills to Angola that those trees and hills are the last part of the outside world many people headed to Angola see. This somber warning carries extra weight from the usually sunny Fisher-Giorlando, who continues to work to make windows through which those inside and outside can see each other.

Chris Turner-Neal is the senior managing editor of 64 Parishes.