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By Eric Weld   Date: 1/17/11 Bookmark and Share

Interterm Course Focuses on U.S. Prison System

For some time now, the United States has imprisoned more people than any other country in the world. According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, nearly 2.5 million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, and another 92,000 in juvenile facilities—far ahead of second-place Russia. More than one in every 32 U.S. adult citizens is either in jail or prison, on parole or on probation for criminal convictions.

Peter Wagner, executive director, Prison Policy Initiative, appears in the documentary film Gerrymandering, about a prison in Anamosa, Iowa.

According to Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in nearby Easthampton that researches and documents the impacts of mass incarceration, the outsized statistics of incarceration in the U.S. are the result of a flawed and unfair criminal justice system.

Wagner, who has teamed with several Smith students in advocating for improved criminal justice policy in the U.S., shares some of his findings this week during his course, “Prison Industrial Complex through Film,” part of the Interterm 2011 noncredit program.

The course screens several documentary films to illustrate the evolution of the American prison industry and social and political factors that have contributed to the current situation.

“I’m hoping to introduce students to the political and economic factors that shape criminal justice policy in this country,” describes Wagner. “We start 150 years ago, when the very idea of incarceration as punishment didn’t exist, and we explore the factors quite unrelated to crime that fuel prison expansion.”

It is the fourth year Wagner has participated in the Interterm program; he previously taught a similar course, “Constitutional Law through Film.”

The Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 by Wagner, then a law school student, with Sarah Kowalski ’03, and a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, with the mission of bringing attention to the injustice of the country’s incarceration rate as well as the dubious political situation in which prisoners are counted as population in congressional districts but not allowed to vote.

Smith alumna Aleks Kajstura ’05 serves as the legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, and Leah Sakala ’11, currently a work-study employee with the organization, plans to work full time with the organization after graduation, says Wagner. “Also, at least five of our past staff, volunteers or interns have been Smith students,” he says.

It was Kowalski’s suggestion, says Wagner, to teach the Smith course during Interterm. “Sarah thought that structuring the course around films would be a good fit.”

Wagner will show the films Yes in My Backyard, about a town in upstate New York lobbying for a new prison; This Black Soil, about a poor community in Virginia that objected to building a prison there; Corrections, about the private prison industry; The Farm, which follows six prisoners in Angola Penitentiary (La.) to explore issues of life imprisonment, family ties, the death penalty, prison labor and others; and a clip from Gerrymandering (including an appearance by Wagner), which illustrates how prisons affect the electoral process.

Students who take Wagner’s course tend to be social justice activists, he says, or are interested in law school. He hopes to arm them with knowledge and inspiration that may assist them in whatever career paths they choose, but particularly if they encounter legal issues.

“Teaching this course to Smith’s bright and dedicated students is a lot of fun,” he says. “Maybe they will want to become criminal justice policy reform advocates. But the information, ideas and patterns discussed will be applicable to other fields.”

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