Since the late 1960s, the U.S. prison system has expanded with unprecedented speed to become the largest in the world. Prisons, once seen as marginal zones of resocialization or containment for an unassimilable few, now appear central to the American political and social orders; we find ourselves in the presence of what critics have called “mass incarceration,” the “penal state,” and a “prison society” organized around a “new Jim Crow.” This seminar considers two intellectual traditions that have emerged in opposition to the new system—an interdisciplinary field of critical prison studies and a canon of prison literature. Approaching the prison from multiple perspectives, we read works in history (Foucault, Rothman); law (Feeley and Simon, Alexander); social science (Gilmore, Wacquant); and cultural studies (Rodriguez, Davis); as well as literary works by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers (Reed, Jackson, Baca). Key problems for discussion include disciplinary subject-formation and dehumanization, unfree labor and racialization, biopolitics and neoliberal governmentality, and the politics and poetics of literary testimony.
Taught by Caleb Smith Spring 2016