The War on Drugs—Mechanisms and Effects

Mass incarceration is fueled by a highly funded and minimally constrained criminal justice system that traps people branded as “criminals,” even individuals without a criminal record, into a permanent undercaste.
Grade Level

Teaching 'The New Jim Crow'
Lesson 6: The War on Drugs—Mechanisms and Effects

Essential Question

  • How does our criminal justice system fuel and perpetuate mass incarceration? 


Big Idea

  • Mass incarceration is fueled by a highly funded and minimally constrained criminal justice system that traps people branded as “criminals,” even individuals without a criminal record, into a permanent undercaste.



  • Students will compare the public perception of the criminal justice system (including common misperceptions) with the reality of law enforcement practices in the War on Drugs. 
  • Students will identify specific aspects of the criminal justice system that undermine civil liberties. 
  • Students will explain the ways in which state and federal governments have strengthened the power of law enforcement agencies since the 1980s. 
  • Students will evaluate the degree of justice and fairness delivered by our current criminal justice system as it pertains to drug-related offenses.


Required Materials


Optional Materials


Tier II and III Vocabulary

  • civil liberties
  • coerce
  • conviction
  • felon
  • pariah
  • parole
  • plea bargain
  • pretext
  • probable cause
  • probation
  • stop and frisk
  • surveillance
  • three strikes
  • warrant
  • wiretapping


Warm Up

Write the prompt (below) on the board and allow students time to quietly and independently respond in writing. If you have a journal procedure, use it here. Allow time for sharing and discussion.

Complete the prompts “Something I know … ”, “Something I believe … ” and “Something I wonder ... ” about each of the following (totaling nine responses):

  1. the criminal justice system
  2. the prison system
  3. the War on Drugs


Before Reading

Prepare students for thinking about the themes and topics in the excerptThe Lockdown” with the strategies below. 

The Anticipation Guide includes a list of statements that students engage with before reading the excerpt. Encourage them to note their gut responses and beliefs in the first column. (Students will return to this guide during the closing activity.) 

Text Graffiti exposes students to short pieces of the text prior to having them read the full excerpt. Students read selected quotes out of context, silently comment on the quote and then respond to their peers’ comments. 


During Reading

Engage students in a close reading of the excerpt. Use the text-dependent questions provided to build comprehension through textual analysis, or create your own to develop this thinking habit among students.

  1. First Read. Have students read the excerpt independently and silently, marking the text with Thinking notes. Thinking notes are annotations (highlights, underlines or symbols) that students make to document their thinking during reading. 

  2. Second Read. Facilitate a Shared Reading of the excerpt. 

You can modify shared reading for partner or paired readers with a Say Something activity, during which students take turns reading aloud to each other, stopping occasionally to comment on or question the text. 


After Reading

Facilitate a class discussion that centers on asking and answering the text-dependent questions, including student-created questions. Discussions can be structured in a number of ways. Here are three suggestions:

  • Text Talk Time is a whole class discussion structured to facilitate rich dialogue, active listening and use of textual evidence. The group setting challenges students to analyze The New Jim Crow through collaborative discussion and gives students an opportunity to practice answering questions they may later be asked to write about. 
  • Fishbowl is an engaging and student-centered strategy that builds comprehension while developing group discussion skills. In the inner circle, or fishbowl, students have a text-based discussion and practice responding to multiple points of view; students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes. 
  • Socratic Seminar is an inquiry-driven discussion in which students examine issues and respond to open-ended questions about the themes and topics in a text. Using dialogue rather than debate to communicate, students listen attentively and respond civilly. But they are also expected to think critically, make persuasive claims and counterclaims and generate questions supported by evidence.


Closing Activity

Have students return to the Anticipation Guide. In this guide, they responded to statements (before reading), sharing their gut responses and beliefs. 

Ask students to re-examine the same statements, this time through Alexander’s lens. Challenge students to identify her position on each statement—by writing true/false; agree/disagree in the second column. Ask them to provide textual evidence from “The Lockdown” in the third column to substantiate their response.

Lastly, have students reflect on how their views may have changed after reading the excerpt and reflecting on Alexander's perspective. (Have them complete the fourth column.) 


Exit Ticket

Have students return to their “I know … , I wonder … , I believe … ” responses from the Warm Up. 

  1. Has anything you thought you knew changed? Explain.
  2. Have any of your beliefs changed? Explain.
  3. Were any of the things you wondered about answered? Explain.
  4. What new questions do you have?


Return to Teaching The New Jim Crow | Proceed to Lesson 7 - Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System 

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