Teaching the Prison Industrial Complex

By Aparna Lakshmi

Illustrator: Ethan Heitner

Illustration: Ethan Heitner

“Harm comes from prior harm.” As Deandra says this, I am sitting in the back of my classroom, taking notes. My students are sitting in a circle in the middle of the room, talking to each other about the questions on the board: “What is the purpose of prison? Do prisons work?” In front of them are annotated readings, lecture notes, and typed response papers. They seem to have forgotten that I am there.

Deandra and Lee are discussing what would happen if there were no prisons. Deandra has just finished telling the story of a boy who, fearful of his abusive father, suffocates a girl rather than get in trouble for having a guest over when he is not supposed to. In this case, who should be punished? The boy who is clearly old enough to know his actions are wrong? The father who has instilled such tremendous fear in his son?

If there were no prisons, how would human beings respond to harm like this? Deandra and Lee wrestle with what Deandra has raised: “Harm comes from prior harm.” People harm others when they have been harmed themselves—by abuse, poverty, trauma—but prison does not address this prior harm. According to Deandra, it only adds a new layer of trauma to that individual, their family, and their community. As Roberto points out, “When you hurt a person, you hurt a bunch of people connected to that person.” Therefore, prison not only harms inmates, but their families and communities as well. But what response to harm is fair to victim, perpetrator, and community? What can stop the cycle of violence?

Conversations like these happened roughly once a week last year in my senior humanities class. I was teaching in an alternative school in Boston Public Schools and working with students who had dropped out, transferred, or been expelled from their previous schools. Many of my students struggled with reading complex texts and had never learned how to make and defend an argument through their writing. I was determined that they would leave my class confident about their research, reading, and writing skills, and the proud possessors of a portfolio that demonstrated those skills. But I was worried about how to engage students when their school careers had been marked by serious academic challenges.

Therefore, I decided to begin the year with a Freirean exercise I had read about in an article by a former teacher at El Puente High School in Brooklyn, NY. On the first day of class, my students walked in to see a large “problem tree” drawn on the board. We spent the whole period filling in the leaves of the tree with the problems we saw in our local communities, nation, and world. After an hour, the leaves were filled with words like racism, probation system, rape, and standardized testing. I explained to students that we would spend the year studying something on this tree and that what we studied was up to them.

For the next two weeks, the students and I worked to choose one problem to study together. First, I gave them cards that represented each of the tree leaves. In pairs, they organized these problems into categories, and soon we had filled in the branches of our tree with broader topics: education, poverty, government, violence, and prison. To give students a glimpse of what the year would be like if we studied any of these topics, I taught a mini-lesson about each one. Next, students interviewed someone in their family or community about the most serious problem that person faced. Most talked about the economy or violence in the community.

Finally, the students voted to study the U.S. prison system. At the end of the year, during a feedback circle, Shanell said: “The best thing about this class was we got to choose what we wanted to learn about. I did the reading and wrote the papers because I was interested in this topic.”

Relevance in the classroom is a tricky thing. We may deeply believe that what we teach is relevant to students’ lives, but they often experience school as disconnected from their daily realities. The things that students do experience may be outside of our interests, expertise, or comfort zone. When I first started teaching in Boston, I couldn’t have imagined spending a year studying the prison industrial complex. I needed to listen deeply to students’ voices about what was relevant to their lived experience before I began to make connections between what I thought was important to study and what they thought mattered. High student interest in a theme they had chosen themselves allowed us to delve into historical content more deeply and facilitated engagement in the academic writing process.

‘Neither Slavery nor Involuntary Servitude, Except as a Punishment for Crime . . .’

During the first half of the year, our class looked at the origins of today’s skyrocketing incarceration rate. We began by looking at slavery and emancipation and closely analyzing the text of the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added). We investigated the Slave Codes and Black Codes, as well as the convict lease system and the county chain gang.

This historical context enabled students to engage with an excerpt from Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis makes the argument that today’s prison system is a reincarnation of slavery, and she calls for the abolition of prisons as necessary in order to truly bring about the final abolition of slavery.

Are Prisons Obsolete? is a dense text and one that challenges even highly skilled readers. Interest alone will not support students’ understanding of a text that is well above their reading level, and many of my students struggled with even grade-level reading comprehension. Therefore, I modeled how to actively read a text using simple reading strategies: pre-reading, annotation, and rereading. As we read Davis’ words aloud, we paused frequently to highlight questions such as “Are prisons racist institutions?” and “Is racism so deeply entrenched in the institution of the prison that it is not possible to eliminate one without eliminating the other?” (26). Students wrote notes in the margin when we read that both chattel slavery and the penitentiary “subordinated their subjects to the will of others” (27). Many students were shocked when they read that officials who enforced the Mississippi Black Codes often prescribed the convict lease system or county chain gang as punishment for the crime of “vagrancy”; the Black Codes “declared vagrant ‘anyone who was guilty of theft, had run away [from a job], was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family and . . . all other idle and disorderly persons’” (29).

When students were assigned to finish the excerpt for homework, I supported their reading by including vocabulary, background on Davis, and two questions to consider:

What is the connection between slavery and prison?

Who benefits from slavery? Who benefits from prison?

Over the year, I scaffolded access to a variety of texts. Students read memoirs (the autobiography of Assata Shakur), newspaper articles (“A Mother’s Day Plea for Justice” by Johnna Paradis), and comics (The Real Cost of Prisons Comix), as well as academic texts. I invited students to come after school every Monday to actively read that week’s text, and many students would join me to do that week’s reading together.

Over the course of the first half of the year, we explored a variety of topics: the legacy of slavery, prison economics, wealth inequality in the United States, the war on drugs, motives for incarceration, inmate rights, resistance movements, and alternatives to incarceration. Every week we explored two open-ended questions together. For example, when studying the war on drugs, we considered:

Are prisons racist institutions? If yes, how so? If not, why not?

From 1970 to 2010, the number of people incarcerated in the United States went from about 325,000 to more than 2 million. How and why did this happen?

The structure of each week reflected my philosophy that it is important for students to have a balance of receptive and expressive experiences. Receptive experiences included listening and reading, while expressive experiences included speaking and writing. For example, when we studied the war on drugs, students took notes on a lecture that included information on Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs in 1971, Reagan’s decision to fund this “war” with $1.7 billion, and the wave of legal changes that swept the country (including New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, California’s three strikes laws, and the increases in mandatory minimum sentences).

Then we played a game that helped students understand that race and class are key determinants in what happens when someone is arrested for drug use. Each student received an index card stating a defendant’s race, class, occupation, drug possession charge, offense number (first, second or third), and whether the defendant had representation from a private lawyer or a public defender. Students stood in a straight line and listened to the statements I read out loud: “Take one step back if your defendant is represented by a private lawyer.” “Take one step forward if your defendant is below the poverty line.” The closer you were to the front of the room, the closer your defendant was to prison.

At the end, students were shocked. The game revealed that race and class were much stronger determinants in sentencing than the substance the defendant was using or selling. Students learned that African American, Native American, Latina/o, Southeast Asian, and poor and working-class communities are dramatically overrepresented in prison. In Rafael’s words, it was “just crazy” to see that middle-class college students could use heroin and receive community service, but people with less privilege could receive a lengthy prison sentence for the same offense. Students linked the game to the reading they had done that week and noted that, according to “Prisoners of the War on Drugs,” one of the comics in The Real Cost of Prisons, although African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population and 13 percent of drug users, they comprise “35 percent of drug arrests, 55 percent of drug convictions, [and] 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drugs.”

Moving Toward Research and Writing

At the beginning of every year, I survey students about their experiences with reading and writing. Based on their responses, I learned that many of my students had never learned how to craft an argumentative thesis, defend an argument in depth using cited sources, or create a bibliography. Some were used to handwriting all of their assignments. Walking into my class, they were shocked to hear that they had to write eight two-paged papers and a 10- to 12-paged researched thesis.

Writing is a creative act, an act of communication that can be both deeply personal and deeply public. I hoped that my students’ engagement in the ideas we were discussing would result in a commitment to working on their writing about those ideas. However, as with reading, high student interest is not a guarantor of clear and thoughtful writing, nor is it a substitute for direct and explicit writing instruction or structures such as writers’ workshops, teacher and peer feedback, and public forums to exhibit work.

To scaffold students’ research and writing skills, the requirements for writing a paper progressed from simple responses to more structured response papers. Students began the year by choosing quotations to respond to and freewriting their responses. Once students had chosen three quotations and briefly written about them, I asked them to craft three arguments—each based on the evidence (quotation) from the text they had selected. We used the metaphor of a detective who makes an argument about what occurred based on the evidence that she finds. This metaphor helped my students make arguments, which we defined as debatable, defendable statements that are not facts and not opinions, but assertions that can be proven using evidence and analysis. The structure of argument, evidence, and analysis helped students craft well-organized paragraphs that communicated something meaningful to their readers.

For example, here is a paragraph from one of Crystal’s early papers responding to Are Prisons Obsolete?

Prisoners back then were not treated like they were human beings. “The prisoners ate and slept on bare ground, without blankets or mattresses, and often without clothes” (33). Although they were in jail they were not provided the proper shelter. They also would get whipped if they would try to run away. If these examples don’t scream out slavery then I don’t know what does. Slavery was abolished but the prisoners were still being treated as if they were slaves. I think that it was unfair that the prison guards got to break the law when it comes down to prisoners.

Once students had mastered finding evidence and making an argument based on that evidence, I gradually pushed them to start proving their arguments. For each paper students wrote, I gave them extensive feedback on the strength of their arguments (“This is a fact, not an argument”), the strength of their evidence (“Why did you choose this quotation? I don’t see how it helps prove your assertion”), and the strength of their analysis (“This is very convincing writing. The examples you use really work to prove your point”). After writing eight short papers in the first term, most students were able to write a cohesive, well-structured short response paper. Most importantly, they were able to make an argument in their writing and defend that argument through evidence and analysis. They were now ready to tackle the challenge of researching and writing a thesis.

I gave the students a list of 40 topics that connected in some way to the U.S. criminal justice system, and they brainstormed more on their own. We took a trip to the Copley branch of the Boston Public Library, where students were able to see which topics they had chosen had the strongest sources available. Some of their final topics included U.S. practices of extraordinary rendition, the constitutionality of the death penalty, responses to drug trafficking, and the experiences of women in prison. After choosing a final topic and selecting six sources, students began actively reading their sources in preparation for their thesis. They typed 25 quotations from their sources to build a body of evidence for their paper and organized their arguments and evidence into an outline.

When students were ready to construct their thesis statements, I invited guest teachers into the classroom for a writing workshop so that each student was able to spend 20 minutes with a teacher developing a strong, clear thesis statement. By then the students had had significant experience in crafting arguments, so they were able to construct strong thesis statements by developing and refining the larger argument they wanted to make in their papers based on the smaller, more specific arguments they were making in each section. Examples of students’ thesis statements included:

Prison harms women, manipulates them, and makes them less healthy.

In theory, the Stanford Prison Experiment was ethical, but the real things that happened during the experiment were unethical.

The U.S. government targeted Puerto Rican independence movements with surveillance and violence because the government sees the movement as a threat to U.S. colonialism.

After five weeks of outlining, drafting, revising, and editing, students turned in their final papers and exhibited them in small peer review circles that were observed by other students as well as outside teachers and guests.

Here is an excerpt from Crystal’s thesis, comparing prison labor in the 19th-century Deep South and prison labor in U.S. prisons today:

Between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, prison labor was used as a replacement for slavery. Prisoners worked on state-operated chain gangs, and they were also leased to private companies and plantations. Under this new convict lease system, “Blacks suffered far more than whites, who rarely left the penitentiary walls. In 1882, for example, 126 of 735 black state convicts perished, as opposed to 2 of 83 whites” (Oshinsky 46). “The leasing act was designed for black, not white convicts” (Oshinsky 41). This act was designed to keep blacks enslaved even though slavery was abolished. The prison system back then was a racialized system, just as slavery had been. The white men in the prisons rarely left the prison, so they never had to do the type of labor that the African Americans were doing.

It is clear from these two excerpts of her writing that Crystal grew significantly over the course of the year in her ability to make an argument, use evidence, and analyze her evidence to prove her assertions. When I spoke with her on the day she turned her thesis in, she couldn’t quite believe she had written it.

At the end of the year, most students agreed that researching and writing the thesis was their most rewarding experience in the class, and all of them felt a keen sense of accomplishment. For me, the most powerful moment of the year came during one of the peer review circles.

Five students and I were sitting around a table in the middle of the classroom, while other students and guests watched from an outer circle. Each of the five had written a paper about the experiences of incarcerated women or incarcerated parents. Some had chosen to focus on the perspective of the incarcerated adults (“Moms in Orange Jumpsuits”), while others had chosen to focus on the perspectives of children whose parents are incarcerated (“One Child at a Time”). Shauntae was speaking about the experiences of these children, and her sources included Children with Parents in Prison, edited by Cynthia Seymour and Creasie Finney Hairston; “Prisoners of a Hard Life,” one of the comics in The Real Cost of Prisons; and Tenacious, a publication by women in prison for women. Shauntae explained that children of incarcerated parents “may have lower levels of self-esteem and [may] be more likely to believe what others say about them and their parents. They are also more likely to live with a nonparent caregiver and are therefore at higher risk for abuse or neglect.” She suggested possible solutions for the care and well-being of these children, proposing increased contact between incarcerated parents and their children, as well as increased contact between these parents and the adults in their children’s lives, such as teachers, caregivers, and social workers.

Finally, Shauntae shared that she herself had experienced the incarceration of a parent: “From my personal experience, having an incarcerated parent . . . has not been easy, and while [my father] was gone I have never seen such change in my little brother and myself. . . . However, I do know that if we had gotten the help and support we needed, it would have been much easier than what it was for all of us during that time.”

I was moved that she felt comfortable enough to share this very personal experience in the context of our classroom, and I was even more moved that the process of writing something for school had served as an opportunity to process and respond to her own experience. Moments like these taught me that studying the prison industrial complex was valuable for students on a personal, political, and academic level. The class offered students the opportunity to move beyond pathologizing their own lives, families, and communities by helping them put their experiences in a broader social context—an experience that was deeply strengthening for both the students and myself.


Ahrens, Lois, ed. The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2008.

Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Hampton, Henry, dir. “A Nation of Law?” in Eyes on the Prize video documentary, Public Broadcasting System, 1987.

Gordon, Ruth. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007.

James, Joy, ed. The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. New York: SUNY Press, 2005.

Paradis, Johnna. “A Mother’s Day Plea for Justice,” The Norwalk Hour, Nov. 28, 2010. raisetheagect.org/paradis.html.

Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.



Aparna Lakshmi is a humanities teacher in Boston Public Schools and a founding teacher at Boston Green Academy. Student names have been changed.