Reflections on Teaching Prison Abolition

By Barraclough, Laura | Radical Teacher, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Reflections on Teaching Prison Abolition

Barraclough, Laura, Radical Teacher

I teach a course tiffed Prisons and Public Policy in the Anthropology-Sociology Department at Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts college in southwest Michigan. The college is known for its "K-Plan," which integrates interdisciplinary liberal arts courses, experiential and service-learning, study abroad, and a senior thesis. Most students come from Michigan and the upper Midwest, approximately 85 percent are white, and most are from middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds. The college has a reputation for being politically liberal and attracts students and faculty who are interested in social justice, which is assumed as a common value but varies widely in meaning and is not often discussed explicitly. Many students envision themselves as liberal reformers, and they pursue careers in which they believe they can use their privilege and education on behalf of others whom they identify as less fortunate, although a small minority begins to question this role as they near graduation. As a reflection of their racial and class backgrounds, few students who take my course have had any meaningful experience with people currently or formerly in prison; however, several have parents or other family members who work in the prison system in an administrative or medical capacity, such as a warden, psychiatric nurse, or dentist. A few students have visited prisons in the United States and abroad, but in general their personal experience with prisons and prisoners is minimal or nonexistent. In this essay, I reflect upon my experiences teaching radical literature about the prison-industrial complex (PIC) within this context, with particular attention to the changes I have made over two iterations of the course in order to increase students' receptivity to the possibility of abolition.


When I initially developed the course, my priority was to teach students about the ways in which prisons create and sustain relationships of power and inequality. Given students' privileged racial and class identities, I thought this foundation would be absolutely necessary before I could ask students to engage seriously with radical critiques of the prison industrial complex and, ultimately, the possibility of abolition. By the second iteration of the course, however, I recognized that this pedagogical emphasis on structural inequality, while still crucial, needed to be paired with equally strong emphasis upon the ways in which students themselves are implicated in the production of mass incarceration and cultures of punishment, as well as the multiple ways in which they can create change. To achieve both objectives, the disciplinary focus of the course is a primary resource to which I refer continuously. I write the following on the first page of my syllabus: "Please keep in mind that this is an anthropology-sociology course, not a criminology course. That means that our focus will always be on the social and cultural functions of prisons, and how they shape the quality of individual lives and are shaped by the dynamics of social structures--not on how to run prisons, improve their efficiency, or even maintain them."

We begin the course by reading Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag (2007), which uses a political-economic perspective to historicize the growth of the prison-industrial complex since the late 1960s as a systemic resolution of social crises wrought by surpluses of land, labor, finance capital, and state capacity. Since many of my students come from rural or semi-rural areas, Gilmore's chapter on the myth of rural job creation through prisons, which I pair with the documentary film Prison Town USA (2006), resonates strongly, probably because the film focuses substantially on the experiences of those who are not locked up per se, but who are nonetheless profoundly affected by the PIC--guards, partners and children, townspeople, and social service workers--and with whom students are more able to identify.

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