In the spring of 2016, I was awarded a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under its Enduring Questions program. Grants are awarded to support “faculty members in the teaching and development of a new course that fosters intellectual community through the study of an enduring question.” Under federal law, such a course cannot forward a political program or philosophy. It must be “question-driven,”  encouraging “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.”

The question I chose was: “What is the purpose of incarceration?” The course is now in its second year, and this fall I am teaching it online. This is a very different experience from the onsite classroom (something I will write about in subsequent posts), but as part of the community-building effort I felt it was important to make the experience available to all of our students at The New School, and many of our undergraduates take the majority of their humanities credits in virtual classrooms.

For now, I would like to begin by noting some revisions I made to my spring 2017 syllabus. The revised course is presented in full below the jump.

  • I cut our reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs of the House of the Dead to the first third of the book, since it is these chapters that best describe the process of becoming an incarcerated person. Subsequent chapters tend towards character studies — and at least one raises troubling questions about nineteenth century Russian anti-Semitism which are historically important — but perhaps not to this course.
  • I added a report on the Native American boarding schools established by the United States government in the nineteenth century because indigenous people have been, as a matter of course, subject to various forms of confinement that are sometimes ignored when we consider the question of incarceration. Such schools were also explicitly reformist at a moment in time when American prisons had more or less ceased to perform that task. The report, written by a female inspector, also presents the point of view of a bureaucrat who was evaluating the purpose and outcome of the schools from the perspective of the state.
  • I expanded the selections from Harriet A. Jacobs’ memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity (1682), because these texts sparked some of the best conversations our class had last year, and several students had gone on to read them in their entirety.
  • Instead of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience (1997), I am teaching his earlier volume, Live from Death Row (1996). Familiar as I am with Abu-Jamal’s story, I had not understood how much Death Blossoms relies on ideas expressed in this earlier volume. Because of this oversight, I ended up lecturing far more than I wanted to: in addition, the less structured and thematically coherent aspect of Death Blossoms made close reading difficult — and opened the door to students responding with sincere, but sometimes ill-informed, views about racism and contemporary incarceration practices.
  • I added selections from Kate Millett, The Loony Bin Trip (1990), in part because we had no reading last year on medical institutions, but also because Millett makes a strong argument that not to be incarcerated and treated for an emotional disability is a fundamental human right.
  • I reduced our reading of Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking, to the first third of the book. It was a long book for students to read as they were preparing their final work. I had another reason as well, which I will expand on in a subsequent post.

And with that, I welcome you to year two of the course: click below to view the entire syllabus.

Using an interdisciplinary humanities approach, this course asks: what is the purpose of incarceration? What have been its goals across time, cultures, and states? When have incarcerated people turned the sites of their confinement to the purpose of liberation? 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 can be a vehicle for collecting debts, conveying shame, forcing contemplation, articulating reforms, extracting information, protecting from self-harm, assembling labor, and restraining dissent. Sites of incarceration can also become sites for protest and ethical connection.

When we examine incarceration over time and across cultures, 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 practice.

At a time in which many in the United States are calling for prison abolition, and others wish to impose a “law and order” regime, 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.


A central aspect of our work in this course will be to answer our question — “What is the purpose of incarceration” — through close reading, discussion, and evidence-based argument. Because of this, it is extremely important for you to have direct access to our central texts, and for all of us be working from the same editions so that we can respond to each other with precision.

Learning Outcomes

You should leave this class understanding:

  • How to do a close reading of a text;
  • How to formulate a good argument;
  • How to make and defend your argument;
  • How to think critically across space and time to answer your question.


Rationale and questions:

Modern incarceration draws on, and was created to replace, other forms of punishment and 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 other techniques for restricting human freedom? In this section, we will also explore literary genres — the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, the statement of conscience, the confession, the novel, the report, the memoir; the letter — that will recur throughout the course.

Module 1.1 | September 5-September 10

Module 1.2 | September 11-September 17

  • Harriet A. Jacobs (Linda Brent), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (1861), selections.

Module 1.3 | September 18-September 24

September 24 | Preliminary Answer Due (250-300 words)

 In 250-300 words, offer a preliminary answer to our question given what we have learned so far. This is the core of the paper you will write and revise over the course of the semester. Your paper should include:

  • A definite answer framed in a direct, one sentence statement “The purpose of incarceration is…..” 
  • Sample evidence from what we have read so far that supports this answer.
  • A statement of one or two sentences that anticipates how another person might challenge your argument.


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, lectures 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 or exceed their original purpose?

Module 2.1 | September 25-October 1

  • 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.

Module 2.2 | October 2-October 8

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

Module 2.3 | October 9-October 15 

  • 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.

October 15 | Expanded Answer Due (1000 words)

 Expanding your first paper to 1000 words, work the material we have read in the second unit into your essay. In this exercise:

  • Choose evidence from our newer readings that supports the answer to the question you have settled on in your preliminary answer.
  • Then, choose evidence that potentially challenges the answer to the question you have settled on. 
  • In a final paragraph: do you think there are viable alternative answers than the one you settled on? If so, what are they? Alternatively, does your new thinking cause you to want to modify or expand your answer?


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, hospital, 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 | October 16-October 22

  • Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1905).
  • Bayard Rustin, “I Must Resist,” letter to the draft board, November 16, 1943.

 Module 3.2 | October 23-October 29

  • Kate Millett, The Loony Bin Trip (1990), selections.
  • Angela Y. Davis, The Autobiography, 1-73.

 Module 3.3 | October 30-November 5

  • Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (1947).

November 5 | Expanded Answer II Due

 This draft should be between 1500 and 1750 words. Once again, you should work new materials from this section into your paper that both support and challenge the answer to the question that you arrived at in the last version. In addition:

  • Include another classmate’s answer in your paper, represent that person’s argument fully and fairly.
  • Show why your answer is a more compelling answer than either the challenge you posed yourself in the last version of the paper or your classmate’s answer.


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 Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, 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 | November 6-November 12

  • Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row (1996).
  • George Jackson, Soledad Brother (1970), 21-35, 45-51.

Module 4.2 | November 13-November 19

  • Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row (1996).
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, (1849). 

Module 4.3 | November 27-December 3

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

 December 3 | Expanded Answer III Due

 Once again you will rewrite your paper. It may be no longer than 2000 words. This time:

  • Work new readings into your answer.
  • Consider a second answer posed by a classmate, representing it fully and fairly.

Edit your own arguments, making them more concise, and using footnotes if necessary to remove secondary argument, explanations, and evidence from the main narrative of the paper. Footnotes do not count as part of your total word count.

Conclusion | December 4 – December 12 | Our Findings

December 17 | Final, Copyedited Draft of Paper Due