Students in the Crime, Prisons, Education, and Justice minor will participate in one of the most pressing civil rights challenges of the 21st century: ending mass incarceration and the carceral state.
For decades, scholars and activists have denounced the moral bankruptcy and political expediency that produced and sustained mass incarceration and the carceral state in the United States. The particulars are widely known: measured either in real numbers or per capita rates, the United States imprisons far more people for vastly longer periods than any other country on earth. More than two million people are in prison or jail. More than four million are under some form of custodial supervision. Millions more have lost the right to vote or have been locked out of the civil, communal, and economic life of the community. Today, the broad reach of the carceral state is truly staggering. Nearly half of all Black men and 40% of all white men between the ages of 18-23 have been arrested or convicted of a criminal offense. There are more Black men and women in custody or under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the 21st century than there were slaves in 1850.
This is the world of the carceral state and mass incarceration. But perhaps that world is changing. For the first time in nearly fifty years, the overlapping moral, economic, racial, and political problems of mass incarceration have come to occupy a central place in the American public square. A welcome bipartisan sentiment has emerged that mass incarceration is a problem the United States continues to ignore at its peril. From former Attorney General Eric Holder to former Congressman Newt Gingrich; from Charles Koch to George Soros; from the progressive supporters of the ACLU to the Tea Party activists in “Right On Crime,” there is now broad agreement that change in the American criminal justice system is not only possible, it is imperative.
Hyper-incarceration is a relatively new reality in the United States. For most of the 20th century, imprisonment rates in this country were relatively stable, and on par with the rest of the Western world. In the early 70s, they began to climb, and continued to climb through good economic times and bad, as crime rates rose and fell, in Red States and Blue, during Democratic administrations as well as Republican. Why? Any major social change produces winners and losers. Who benefited from the carceral state and who lost? And how did we get here? What were the arguments that justified and sustained these developments? How did these arguments interact and overlap with other arguments taking place at the same time about social welfare, individual responsibility, and the role of the state? And why might it be changing? Is change really upon us, or are the solutions that dominate the policy realm merely cosmetic? These are the sorts of questions that students in the minor will confront.
But students in the Crime, Prisons, Education, and Justice minor will not merely study these issues. The University has a longstanding relationship with the Cornell Prison Education Program. For many years, Cornell faculty and graduate students have enjoyed the privilege of teaching some of the most eager, appreciative, and thoughtful students they will ever encounter: the men participating in the CPEP programs in New York prisons. As part of the minor, students will serve as Teaching Assistants for Cornell classes in the prisons.
The minor thus teaches what no classroom experience can impart: that knowledge is intrinsically valuable, and that all human beings can be redeemed. It is civic engagement with a profound moral purpose that leads to a rare degree of cultural competence. Adding the classroom component of minor will give the students the opportunity for extended critical reflection on the complex phenomena of mass incarceration and the carceral state, and to integrate their learning in a real-world setting that is all too common for all too many: the American prison.