Course Focuses on U.S. Prison System
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
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.
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
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