Using an interdisciplinary humanities approach, this course asks: what is the purpose of incarceration? What have been its goals across time, cultures and states? Are prisons similar in their purpose to other “total institutions” (Goffman, 1961) such as concentration camps, black sites, penal colonies, asylums, treatment centers, juvenile homes, stockades, boarding schools, ghettoes, and workhouses? In addition to punishment, incarceration is a vehicle for collecting debts, conveying shame, forcing contemplation, articulating reforms, extracting information, protection from self-harm, assembling a labor force, and restraining dissent. Sites of incarceration can also become sites for protest and ethical connection.

Calls to greatly reduce, or abolish, incarceration in the United States, often do not address these many purposes, and are often not specific about what a post-incarceration society, or incarceration that did not rely on violence, would look like. When we examine incarceration over time, or outside a US context, do other purposes reveal themselves? Because it speaks directly to questions of liberty, reason and civilization, removing living souls from social life can be seen as both a reproach and an incitement to a publicly engaged humanities approach. Following Michele Foucault, our investigation is not centrally concerned with “whether the prison environment [is] too harsh or aseptic, too primitive or too efficient, but its very materiality as a vector of power,” its function as “a technology of the body.” At a time in which many college and university students in the United States are calling for the abolition of mass incarceration, it seems fitting to ask: what is the purpose of incarceration?

This course is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions program.


  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead
  • Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary
  • Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
  • Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms
  • Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
  • Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking 


 Rationale and questions:

Modern incarceration draws on, and was invented in opposition to, restrictions on human freedom such as captivity, confinement without trial, torture, and forced servitude. In the first section of the course, our question will be: what is the difference between incarceration in a prison and techniques for restricting human freedom that are extra-judicial or have a purpose other than punishment? Lectures will introduce students to the rise of modern incarceration, from its origins under feudalism to contemporary models that can be public or for-profit. In these weeks, students will also become familiar with narrative modes — including the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, the statement of conscience, the confession, the novel, the memoir, and the letter — that will recur throughout the course.

Module 1.1 | January 31

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, 1-96.
  • Michele Foucault,”Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish, 135-169.
  • Bayard Rustin, “I Must Resist,” letter to the draft board, November 16 1943.

Module 1.2 | February 7

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, 97-198.
  • Harriet A. Jacobs (Linda Brent), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (1861), 173-192.

Module 1.3 | February 14

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, 199-254; 267-287; 302-361.
  • Mary Rowlandson, Narrative of the Captivity, 13th remove, 26-32. 


Rationale and questions:

 In addition to the questions we addressed in the last three weeks, Dostoyevsky raised questions about dissent, symbolic power, confinement and physical harm that we will expand on in the second module of the course. Here our focus will be: how does incarceration punish, on whose behalf, and who benefits? In these weeks, we will focus on forms of incarceration that have a clear and urgent purpose when conceived, but which may then become transformed, thwarted, or repurposed. Is it possible for the punishments associated with incarceration to relinquish any real relevance to their original purpose?

Module 2.1 | February 21

  • Mohamedou Ould Slahi, chapter 1, Guantánamo Diary, 3-70.
  • Testimony of Susan Rosenberg, Formerly incarcerated person for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights: Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences, February 25, 2014.
  • Angel Y. Davis, The Autobiography, 1-73.


Public Lecture | Jen Manion, Amherst College | Monday February 27-28 | No Tuesday Class

Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College, and the author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). The book has been awarded the 2016 Mary Kelly Prize by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

The lecture will be held from 6:00-8:00, at: Committee on Historical Studies, Room 529, 80 Fifth Avenue, 5th floor.

Module 2.2 | March 7

  • Mohamedou Ould Slahi, chapters 2-4, Guantánamo Diary, 71-190.
  • Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony” (1914). Trans. Ian Johnston.

Module 2.3 | March 14

  • Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary, chapters 5-7, 191-372.
  • V. I. Lenin, “Class, Society and the State,” from The State and Revolution, 5-15.


Rationale and questions:


In the third part of the course, we explore the ways that individuals who have been incarcerated answer the question: how did I get here? Lectures will not only explore the idea of reform, and how societies and states have imagined that sites of incarceration can change people; but also the reverberations that incarceration has on a single life, a family network, and a community. If there are ethical and existential transformations that incarceration facilitates, can a prison, jail or concentration camp also a privileged site for understanding human nature? Does the deep contemplation that prison makes possible create the possibility of moral insight that has been previously obscure?


Module 3.1 | March 28

  • Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1905)

 Module 3.2 | April 4

  • Mumia Abu Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience (1997)

Module 3.3 | April 11

  • Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (1947)


Rationale and questions:

 The final three weeks of the course will ask: are there ethical statements and acts of conscience that acquire particular force when made from a site of incarceration? And under what conditions — the threat of execution, harm to self or society, the possibility of access to enhanced humanness — is incarceration an ethical choice? Our final primary text will be , an account of her work fighting the death penalty in the United States. Bringing the execution of humans into our conversation allows students to think about whether a lifetime of incarceration might nurture, rather than destroy human values, and whether there is value in facilitating reconciliation between offenders and those they have harmed. Secondary readings will draw on work from intellectuals who have resorted to self-incarceration as a means of preserving their humanness in the face of violence, as well as those who have recognized that incarceration can be a force in creating ethical connection and social change.

Module 4.1 | April 18

  • Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking, chapters 1-5, pp. 3-117.
  • George Jackson, Soledad Brother (1970), 21-35, 45-51.

Module 4.2 | April 25

  • Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking, chapters 6 – 9, pp. 118-211.
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, (1849)

Module 4.3 | May 2

  • Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking (selections)
  • Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” (1963)