SOCS 644
Toward an Archaeology of the U.S. Prison System

Demetrius Eudell

Course Description

Although the breach of social norms, to which we give the name crime, exists in all societies, the responses to committing crimes is always generated from each society’s particular understanding of its way of life and its conception of what it means to be fully human. In other words, jurisprudence is not a natural phenomenon, but rather is a socio-culturally constituted mechanism invented in order to regulate the behaviors of all members of the society. This course examines a central institution in our culture-specific approach to dealing with social transgressions: the prison system. It attempts to ask how and why prisons developed as the central mode for adjudicating breaches of the social order.

Beginning with David Rothman’s classic Discovery of the Asylum, this course seeks to interrogate the historical and cultural origins of what has more recently come to be known as the prison industrial complex. It does so by utilizing an archaeological approach that examines the social, political and intellectual foundations of the modern form of the institution in the nineteenth century. It aims to show that the invention of the prison system cannot be separated from the intellectual breakthroughs, especially in the natural sciences, that also defined the era.

The course will also pose the question of the effectiveness (however it is defined) of the prison system. Given that many critics contend incarceration is not achieving specific objectives (deterrence for instance), why maintain such a strategy? It is in this context that the metaphysical basis for prisons can be understood as prisons served not only to punish, but also to reaffirm our culture-specific self-conception and related notion of order. Such can clearly be seen with the acrimonious debate surrounding the death penalty, an issue in which many aspects of our understanding of crime and punishment intersect. Issues such as justice, punishment, forgiveness, evil, and revenge that underlay the current debate on the issue will be analyzed to show their effects on political discourse, social policy, and the lived reality of the victims of crime, the incarcerated, and the families and loved ones of both.

Required Texts

All of the following books have been ordered and can be purchased at Red and Black Books at 45 Broad Street, Middletown, CT. 

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prison. Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
Judith W. Kay, Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty
Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Man
Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prisons: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice
Dylan Rodríguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison System
David Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic

Evaluation of Course Performance

The final grade in the course will be determined by regular attendance to class meetings, oral presentations, several short essays, and a final paper. In additional to at least two oral presentations, each student will be required to submit a response paper on each of the required texts for the class. The response paper is due before the first day of discussion of the text but will be accepted at any time before that, including before the actual beginning of class. The papers (approximately 3 pages in length) should briefly discuss the major argument in the text and then discuss its effectiveness (through mode of argument, methodology, or use of evidence). Why is (or is not) the author’s argument convincing or compelling? Does it change the way in which you think about current public debates and discussions on the origins or contemporary operations of the prison system? The final paper, with a topic to be given out later, is to be at least 8 (eight) pages in length and will be due on July 27, 2007.

Course Schedule
Week 1: The Nineteenth Century Context: Intellectual Foundations
June 25-26 Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum
June 27-28 Lombroso, Criminal Man
Week 2: Race, Poverty, and Incarceration
July 2-3 Reiman, The Richer Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison
July 4 No class in observance of 4th of July holiday
July 5 Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
July 6 Kay, Murdering Myths
Week 3: Toward a Reconceptualization of the Prison Industrial Complex
July 9-10 Gilmore, Golden Gulag
July 11-12 Rodriguez, Forced Passages