Considering Race, Class & Punishment in the American Prison System

On Campus
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Course Number
ENGL 9017 640
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Primary Program
Course Description
This writing seminar will sharpen and expand our writing, while bringing to our hearts and minds a deeper understanding of the reality of imprisonment in the United States. This system never goes away. This year it is locking up more than 2,300,000 men, women and children—the highest per-capita rate of imprisonment in the world. Even when we know the statistics and watch shows about crime and jail on TV, what do we really know about life behind bars? For a year? Ten years? Life? As a young journalist, I saw how the criminal justice system was used to suppress Black leadership. I felt drawn to teach creative writing at Holmesburg Prison, to eventually investigate the state prison system, interview prisoners, make friendships, write a newspaper series, magazine articles, and my first book on the subject. For nearly five decades, I’ve observed the human cost of a prison system that connects and damages all of our lives and keeps people from poverty in place. In this course, we will seek insights in books and stories written from prisoners’ personal experiences. We’ll also read scholars—Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis and others—who shed light on the historical repetitions and political exploitations. Guest speakers will include public defenders, parolees, former prisoners, and those fighting for prisoners’ rights and re-entry. Students will gain a more intimate understanding of how the legacies of slavery, racism, the prejudices of class, caste, and misogyny intersect and determine who goes to prison and who does not. Students will free-write for ten minutes a day, every day, and write personal reflections on readings, films, and guest speakers. Responses will lead to essays or stories that students write and present for class discussion. These key pieces may draw from observation, facts and imagination, and may traverse literary nonfiction, memoir, fiction, or poetry. We will present the best of your work in a reading at the end of the semester.
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