The Prison Abolishment Movement (by Christabel Egemba)

Standards :

    1. History-Social Science Content Standard (for grade Eleven):
      1. 11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.
      2. Discuss the significant domestic policy speeches of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton (e.g., with regard to education, civil rights, economic policy, environmental policy).
      3. Explain how the federal, state, and local governments have responded to demographic and social changes such as population shifts to the suburbs, racial concentrations in the cities, Frostbelt-to-Sunbelt migration, international migration, decline of family farms, increases in out-of-wedlock births, and drug abuse.

Reading Standards (for grade 11-12 students):

    1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear relationships among the key details and ideas.
    3. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (ex. Visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    4. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Overview
The focus of this lesson is on the Prison Abolishment Movement. Students will be asked to first assess the political atmosphere and policies that led to mass incarceration in America. Students will learn about those policies starting in the 1960s with those by Richard Nixon such as the war on drugs till Bill Clinton in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through evaluating and analyzing different sources (primary sources, excerpts, campaign ads..etc), students will gain an understanding and be able to determine the central ideas regarding the effects of mass incarceration on society, including how it has disproportionately affected communities of color. Students will explore different ideas relating to the privatization of prisons, prisons as profitable punishment and exploitation of prisoners. Students will then be asked to investigate and make connections between various sources they have read in order to come to their own understanding of key ideas such as prisons, reform, punishment and abolishment. Through analysis of multiple texts and use of critical thinking skills, students will gain an understanding of the role of prisons as an institutionalized form of oppression, the role of money in the prison industry, be able to identify key events that led to mass incarceration and come to their own understanding of the emergence of the Prison Abolishment Movement.

Essential Understanding
Students will understand the political atmosphere and policies that led to mass incarceration, be able to identify the effects of mass incarceration on society, analyze and assess various ideas relating to prison and punishment, and connect the content in readings and lecture to come to their own understanding of the emergence of the Prison Abolishment Movement.

Questions

  • What political policies led to mass incarceration?
  • How are prisons an institutionalized form of oppression of communities of color?
  • How are prisons profiting and exploiting labor?
  • Who is Angela Davis?
  • What is Critical Resistance?
  • How did the Prison Abolishment Movement emerge?

Glossary
Prison Industrial Complex : A complicated system situated at the intersection governmental and private interests that uses prisons as a solution to social, political and economic problems.

Mass incarceration : A phenomenon that refers to the current American incarceration system in which there are comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment and high concentrations of imprisonment among communities of color.

Critical Resistance : Organization that was formed in 1997 when activists challenging the idea that incarceration is the panacea for all of our social ills came together to organize a conference that examined and challenged the phenomenon we have come to call the prison industrial complex.

Angela Davis : She is an American communist, political activist, academic, and author known for her political-theoretical writing. She was briefly involved in the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement and was the co-founder of Critical Resistance.

Privatization : A contract process that shifts public functions, responsibilities, and capital assets, in whole or in parts, from the government to the private sector.

Richard Nixon : The 37th president of the United States (1969–74), who was faced with almost certain impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal, became the first American president to resign from office.

War on Drugs : The effort in the United States since the 1970s to combat illegal drug use by greatly increasing penalties, enforcement, and incarceration for drug offenders. It began in June 1971 when U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and drug-treatment efforts.

 

Introduction

Today, mass incarceration is an issue that is widely spoken about. However, it is an issue that we will soon learn originates far back from today and starts with one institution: prisons. Prisons are at the heart of the American criminal justice system and are suppose to serve as an institution that is meant to bring justice, protect society and ensure public safety. We soon learn that prisons, a product of our capitalistic society, are oppressive and exploitative in nature, especially towards African-Americans who are put into this cycle of incarceration. From this we see the birth of a new movement: the Prison Abolishment Movement. Nixon’s law and order discourse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the congress began passing “War on Drug Legislation”, which criminalized low level drug use and distribution, the signing of “The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994” by Bill Clinton which increased federal funding for prisons and added over 100,000 police officers, created harsher sentencing laws, especially for drug offenders are all underlying factors that led to mass incarceration. Mass incarceration led to the overcrowding of prisons but also disproportionately affected African Americans. Privatization of the prisons sought to tackle the problem of overcrowding. They provided much need relief to inhumane and overstuffed prison cells but prevented a necessary examination of whether incarceration was the appropriate sanction for so many Americans who violated the criminal code. The privatization of prisons, the racial implications, the exploitation of inmate labor and the profitability off of punishment began movement in rethinking the idea of prisons and punishment in America. In 1997, Angela Davis and others who wanted to challenge and re-examine the prison industrial complex formed the Critical Resistance. From there, ideas of abolishing prisons sprouted and the Prison Abolishment Movement began to emerge.

 

Materials :

 

Activities

Day 1: Introduction to political policies behind Mass Incarceration

  • Students will watch the campaign ad by Richard Nixon in the 1968 election.
  • Students will then break off into groups to discuss what they see and don’t see in the ad, who they think it targets and what they think was going on at the time of this ad campaign. Afterwards, have the discussion as a whole class.
  • Lecture on the 1968 Election, Nixon’s law and order discourse and the war on drugs overtime from the Nixon’s presidency all the way to Clinton’s and how that led to mass incarceration.

 

  • Homework:
    1. Students will read pgs 354-356 of an excerpt from In Common Goods: Economy, Ecology, and Political Theology , “Democratic Futures in the Shadow of Mass Incarceration: Toward a Political Theology of Prison Abolition.”, edited by ORTEGA-APONTE, ELIASO.
    2. Students will write a response to ( due before class ):How has mass incarceration disproportionately affected communities of color?

Day 2: Reform vs. Abolish

  • Have a short class discussion on people’s responses to the homework question and the reading.
  • Afterwards, watch the first 2min and 30 secs of a video that talks about overcrowding in state prisons, specifically in California.   
  • Lecture on the emergence of privatization of prisons. Explain how it was a possible solution to mass incarceration. Highlight how the emergence of private prisons was a diversion from the real problem of incarceration because it provided much need relief to inhumane and overstuffed prison cells but prevented a necessary examination of whether incarceration was the appropriate sanction for so many Americans who violated the criminal code.  
  • Break students off into small groups to discuss what it means to reform and what it means to abolish. Afterwards, share ideas to the whole class.

 

  • Homework :
    1. Students will read an excerpt from “THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy.” New Labor Forum 21, no. 3 (2012): 38-47 by Thompson, Heather Ann.
    2. Students will write a response to ( due before class ):What are the economic exploitations of prisons and what effects do prisons have on society?

 

Day 3: Critical Resistance and the Prison Abolishment Movement

  • Have a short class discussion on people’s responses to the homework question and the reading
  • Students will read the primary source: “what is the prison-industrial complex” by the Abolitionists Newspaper
  • Students break off into small groups to discuss the main ideas in the primary source
  • Lecture on the history of Critical Resistance and the beginning of The Prison Abolishment Movement

Homework: Students will read an excerpt from In Struggle on Their Minds: The Political Thought of African American Resistance , (pg 119-49) by Zamalin, Alex.

  Final Assignment: Students will write 2-3 pages on the following question:

  • What factors contributed to the emergence of the Prison Abolishment Movement and how does the movement challenge the idea of prisons and punishment in America?

Additional Sources : “Angela Davis Says Jobs are Answer.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Apr 16, 1998. http://ccl.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/docview/565744868?accountid=10141. CNN. “CNN: The War on Drugs, 40 Years Later.” YouTube. June 17, 2011. Accessed May 06, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtZaWLOSiWA. Eisen, Lauren-Brooke. “Prisoners as Commodities.” In Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, 47-67. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/10.7312/eise17970.7. “The History of Critical Resistance.” Social Justice 27, no. 3 (81) (2000): 6-10. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/29767223.

 

 

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