Prison Abolition Syllabus

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.
American prison. Source: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

On September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners from at least twenty-one states began striking against what they called “modern-day slavery.” The strike stands as one of the largest in U.S. history (figures are difficult to verify and the California prison hunger strike in 2013 involved at least 30,000 people) and several prisoners have lost their lives in this struggle. Prison strikers’ language is not hyperbolic. As Ava DuVernay’s new documentary on the 13th Amendment highlights, the very amendment that abolished slavery and guaranteed the legal emancipation of nearly four million enslaved people also carved out space for the continuation of slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

In 2015, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a U.S. prison. Since then, he banned the use of solitary confinement in federal juvenile prisons and the Bureau of Prisons recommended ending its contracts with private prisons. Obama has also commuted the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders. Yet these changes only affect a small number of people housed in the federal prison system, which itself accounts for less than 10% of the total incarcerated population in the U.S. And while the war on drugs has ruined countless lives, most people in prison are not incarcerated for drug offenses. So Obama’s commutations do not address the main reasons people have been incarcerated; further, commutations shorten their sentence while leaving intact a host of restrictions—including disenfranchisement—faced by people with felony convictions. In a recent presidential election decided by fewer than one million votes, there were over six million voters disenfranchised for felony convictions. 

Other aspects of the mass incarceration are not withering so much as transforming. Private prison corporations, which have been visible but small players in the system of mass incarceration, have already moved toward immigration detention, reentry, and electronic monitoring as new sources of carceral revenue. Within hours of the election of Donald Trump, stocks of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group skyrocketed, signaling another ratcheting up of private prisons and their relationship with the federal government. The excitement for bipartisan prison reform inside the beltway has dissipated amidst a modest reform agenda whose biggest focus has been on reducing government spending rather than ameliorating human suffering. These neoliberal cost-benefit analyses have placed more burdens on the backs of prisoners and their loved ones while leaving untouched the basic outlines of mass incarceration. The failures of contemporary prison reform serve as a reminder of the massive human and environmental costs of prisons.

The current prison strike’s struggle to achieve visibility (organizers have alleged a “mainstream-media blackout”) has been a central obstacle since the origins of prison organizing. In light of the dangerous implications of neoliberal prison reform and the marginalization of the current prison strike from the public political sphere, the Prison Abolition Syllabus (modeled after #FergusonSyllabus, #Charlestonsyllabus, #WelfareReformSyllabus and Trump Syllabus 2.0) seeks to contextualize and highlight prison organizing and prison abolitionist efforts from the 13th Amendment’s rearticulation of slavery to current resistance to mass incarceration, solitary confinement, and prison labor exploitation.


Week 1. Theories and Origins of Punishment
Week 2. Race, Sex, Labor, and Prisons in the Early Republic

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 3. Convict Leasing, the Chain Gang, and Contesting the Southern Prison Regime

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 4. Punishment in the New Metropolis
Week 5. Anti-Lynching and Prisoner Defense Campaigns

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 6. Liberal Punishment and Its Discontents

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 7. The Civil Rights Movement, Prisoners, and Legal Reform

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 8. The Prison Rebellion Years

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 9. Anticarceral Feminism

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 10. Expanding the Prison Industrial Complex

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 11. Health, Justice, and Resistance in the Neoliberal Order

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 12. Carceral Intersections

Primary Sources and Multimedia

  • Behind Bars, directed by Louis Theroux (Kanopy Streaming, 2015).
Week 13. Voices from Inside

Primary Sources and Multimedia

Week 14. The Future of Prison Activism

Primary Sources and Multimedia


Contributors:

Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Garrett Felber is a scholar of 20th-century African American history. He earned a PhD at the University of Michigan in the American Culture Department. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of African American History, South African Music Studies, and SOULS. He has also contributed to The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and Viewpoint Magazine. He is the co-author with Manning Marable of The Portable Malcolm X ReaderFollow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.

Kali Gross is Professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University. Her research concentrates on black women’s experiences in the United States criminal justice system between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is author of the award-winning book, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, and the newly released, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America. Follow her on Twitter @KaliGrossPhD.

Elizabeth Hinton is an assistant professor in the Departments of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. A Ford Foundation Fellow, Hinton completed her Ph.D. in United States History from Columbia University in 2013. She is the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Follow her on Twitter @elizabhinton.

Anyabwile Love is an Assistant Professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. He earned a Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University. He is currently writing a project on John William Coltrane. Follow him on Twitter @AnyabwileLove.