There are three orienting facts that render mass incarceration in the United States an ethical problem worthy of our deep consideration. First, the rate of incarceration has grown dramatically over the last 40 years so that today there are 2.2 million people in prison or jail, and another 5 million on probation or parole. This means that 1/32 adults in the USA are under state supervision.
Second, the application of incarceration is disproportionately applied to the poor, people of color, and other vulnerable populations. Research shows that 85-90% of those in the criminal justice system fall below the poverty line, and the experience of incarceration only impoverishes people further. The consequences of having a criminal record are harsh and debilitating, ranging from family disruption, social alienation, and disenfranchisement. In these ways and others, the current situation of crime and punishment represents a dramatic moral challenge. Finally, victims of crime are themselves poorly served by the current system, often ignored or sidelined in the machinery of punishment.
This course seeks to discover alternatives to the current systems of crime and punishment in order to imagine a more inclusive, just and moral society.
Course Welcome and Introduction
This module introduces the course’s focus on mass incarceration in the United States as an ethical challenge. The facts that define the issue reveal a nation in crisis. We begin with an exploration of religious faith as one starting point for our investigation. However, this course is intended for anyone who is concerned with the problem of incarceration. Beyond following the theological call to attend to the least of these, the course is also motivated by the sociological observation that we learn much about ourselves and our society by exploring how we treat those we deem “criminal.” The first module describes the elements of mass incarceration in the United States, and begins to investigate the causes and consequences of this reality.
Graded: Negative Effects of Incarceration
Crime and Punishment
This module takes up the questions of crime and punishment. What is crime and what are the purposes of punishment? What are the cultural resources that inform the way we think about punishment today?
Graded: The Role of Punishment
The Rise of the Prison
This module takes up the question of the rise of the prison, and its expressions in contemporary USA. How did the Prison Industrial Complex arise, and why has it taken the form it has?
Graded: Prison Privatization
Criminalization: The Experience of Prison
This module looks more closely at the intimate details and experiences of criminalization and incarceration. We explore the experience of being charged with a crime, of going through the court system, and of finding oneself in prison. What is the experience of prison, both on those who find themselves inside and those who are the family and friends of the incarcerated?
Graded: Making Criminals
Race, Incarceration and Social Control
This module focuses directly on the dynamics of race and exclusion within the criminal justice system in the United States. It describes and seeks to explain the causes of racial disparity in incarceration rates and examines the mutually re-enforcing dynamics of poverty and incarceration.
Graded: The Social Function of Punishment
Justice and Mercy: Alternatives to Mass Incareration
The course has examined mass incarceration as a significant social and ethical problem. In this final module, we turn our attention to alternatives to the present system of punishment. Following Dean Townes’ invitation, we seek to “respond to the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment.” We explore community policing, criminal justice reform, and alternative models, including restorative justice, in a bid to locate possibilities for hope.
Graded: Take Action!
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