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Considering Race, Class and Punishment in the American Justice System

ENGL 461.641

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]." 

                         --Charles Dickens, after visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842


This seminar will examine the origins, myths, and realities of the complex industry that imprisons more than 2,300,000 men, women and teens in America's city, county, state and federal prisons. This level of incarceration costs taxpayers more than one hundred million dollars a day. Since its inception, the American prison system, with a seventy-five percent return rate, has profited from, and built upon, its own failure to provide basic tools to prisoners, such as higher education, drug treatment, skilled job training, mental health services, or rehabilitation. This semester, we will read prison literature, view films, visit a prison, meet with prisoners (and possibly do a joint project with them), and listen to guest speakers, including authors, public defenders, parolees and ex-prisoners.  Students will examine how the legacies of slavery, racism, and class prejudice have intersected with popular perceptions of crime and punishment from the late 1700s to current times, and have determined who goes to prison and who does not.  Readings will include essays, stories and poems by Michel Foucault, Chester Himes, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, Kathy Boudin, David Kairys, Fox Butterfield, Kathryn Watterson, Beverly Lowry, Charles Mills, and David Cole.  Students will write journal responses to films, readings, and guest speakers, and research a facet of the prison system for a project that will include research, interviews, two papers, and an oral presentation.  Class size limited to 16.    

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