Race, Class and Punishment

The American prison system, with a seventy-five percent return rate, has been profiting from its own failures since Charles Dickens visited America’s first penitentiary (Eastern State) in 1842, and afterwards wrote: “I am persuaded that those who devised this system of prison discipline, and those… who carry it into execution, do not know what they are doing… I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon [its prisoners].” This seminar will examine the origins, myths and realities of the complex industry that imprisons more than two million men, women and teens in today’s city, county, state and federal prisons, at a taxpayer cost of more than a hundred-million dollars a day. More costly than an Ivy League education, prisons fail to provide basic tools, such as higher education, drug treatment, skilled job training, mental health services, or rehabilitation that would reduce recidivism. During this semester, we will read prison literature, visit Eastern State Penitentiary, visit a working prison, and listen to guest speakers, including authors, public defenders, prisoners and ex-prisoners. Students will learn how the 
legacies of slavery, racism and class prejudice not only have intersected with popular perceptions of crime and punishment from the late 1700s to current times, but also have determined who goes to prison and who does not. Readings will include essays, stories and poems by Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Michel Foulault, Chester Himes, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, David Kairys, Fox Butterfield, Kathryn Watterson, Charles Mills, and David Cole. Students will write journal responses to films, readings, guest speakers and 
class experiences, and choose a facet of the prison system as the focus of a project that will include research, interviews, two papers and an oral report.

R 5:30-8:30


  •  ENGL-461
  • AFRC-462

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