L&S Curricular Connections

Big Ideas Courses

African American Studies 181AC / Ethnic Studies 181AC / Legal Studies 185AC / Social Welfare 185AC


Historical Studies; Social and Behavioral Sciences

Taking a broad interdisciplinary approach, this course introduces students to the long history of the prison in the American experience, questioning the shadows of inevitability and normality that cloak mass incarceration in the contemporary United States and around the globe. While directly addressing the prison system, and related institutions like the police and probation, this course intends to engage with the full range of carceral geographies in which social life is penetrated with the state’s power to surveil, arrest, judge, and punish its citizens and the organizations and capacities through which that power is carried out. The course aims to introduce students to a range of literatures through which they can reorganize the logics of an institution we commonly accept as the reasonable destination for those identified as “criminal” and in metaphoric extensions to other populations like undocumented non-citizens.

Common to our disciplinary frameworks is the recognition that racial identity and the carceral state have been co-determinate in the Americas and in the United States in particular from the beginning of European settlement to the present. Whether setting the boundary between people bound to perpetual slavery and those who could earn and bequeath freedom, or between the employable and the unemployable today, the carceral state is inextricably bound up with our ways of knowing and acting on Americans through racializing them.

As an interdisciplinary team, we recognize that we cannot teach about the presence and persistence of punishment and prisons in contemporary American life without inviting conversation across time periods, genres, and geographies. Thus we will explore a series of visceral, unsettling juxtapositions: ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’; ‘citizenship’ and ‘subjugation’; ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’, ‘marginalization’ and ‘inclusion’– in each case explicating the ways that story making, political demagoguery, and racial, class, and sexual inequalities have shaped the carceral state. These juxtapositions also show just how deeply incarceration practices are anchored in American history and identities, and the ways they differentially organize Black, Latinx, Native, European and Asian lives and communities. Throughout the semester, we will explore a series of tough questions about the difficulty of escaping that past and the potential futures of the American carceral state.

The trajectory of the class will trace the idea of prison through its complex historical development, engaging the social, legal, and narrative parameters of incarceration, and leading to a real-time engagement with the current politics of mass incarceration in California and nationally (with some comparison to global alternatives). The course will also present people’s racialized and minoritized lived experience with the carceral system and its intersections with other systems of state control including criminal supervision, child welfare, and the welfare state. The semester will be punctuated with periodic presentations from invited activists, formerly incarcerated citizens, authors and artists. These sessions will extend our conversation and debate beyond the walls of academia. Guests, instructors and students will participate together in these discussions of some of the most exciting and contentious questions that arise from our contemporary cultural landscape.

Jonathan Simon faculty profile
Jonathan Simon (Law)
Keith Feldman faculty profile
Keith Feldman (Ethnic Studies)
Tina Sacks headshot
Tina Sacks (Social Welfare)
Nikki Jones headshot
Nikki Jones (African American Studies)

Terms Offered

  • Spring 2020
  • Spring 2017
  • Spring 2014