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Syllabuzz: GST 375 - Prison Nation

Is prison an actual deterrent to crime? That's one of the many questions Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne asks her students as part of this upper level interdisciplinary course.

By Eric Townsend

With 2.4 million people in jail or prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, even though countries like China and India are four times as large. It’s not just your common bank robber, either. The U.S. jails the mentally ill; children, some of whom are serving life sentences for crimes committed as adolescents; and a disproportionate number of blacks, who represent only 13 percent of the general population but account for nearly 40 percent of the prison population.

Why does the United States lead the world in the number of people incarcerated and what factors account for a skew toward marginalized groups and the poor? Why are women the fastest growing segment of the jail population? Is prison an actual deterrent to crime? What does a “criminal” even look like when everyone at one time or another has broken the law, even if just by speeding or jaywalking?

Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne asks her students those very questions in her upper level interdisciplinary course Prison Nation: Deconstructing the Prison Industrial Complex. Her first visit to South Africa as an undergraduate student at Howard University helped inspire the course. “My entire professional life was shaped by my own study abroad experience sitting in Nelson Mandela’s cell,” Layne says. “Issues of confinement in literature are something I’ve always been interested in and I find that our prison system is more representative of issues we’ve seen in slavery and Jim Crow. It’s the contemporary manifestation of issues of inequity and the underclass not being served well.”

The course explores some of the complexities of criminal justice in the United States and the ways in which the nation and private sector benefit from crime, among other topics. As prison systems continue to grow, states are turning over their management to corporations aiming to make money by cutting costs, often with dire results. And then there’s capital punishment. Prison Nation focuses attention on an American death penalty system under intense public scrutiny following several high-profile botched executions. Layne has taught the course several times over the past eight years, both in a traditional classroom setting and online. “My job in the class is never to say that you ‘should’ or ‘should not’ look at things in a certain way,” she says, “but to teach and equip students with the tools to think critically about complex issues.”

About the instructor

Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English and has served as coordinator of the African and African-American Studies program. A member of the faculty since 2005, she has designed and taught more than 18 courses, including a popular Winter Term study abroad offering in South Africa.

Recommended readings

Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander


Keren Rivas,
11/12/2014 4:50 PM