Teaching About Mass Incarceration: From Conversation to Civic Action

How one teacher uses the study of mass incarceration to help students learn about civic action and see themselves as change makers.
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A few years ago, one of my students came to me after school and asked me to help him send a letter to his father in prison. Earlier that day in class, we had read an article about the nationwide prisoners’ strike, which saw prisoners demanding humane living conditions, fair pay for work and increased access to rehabilitation programs, among other things. My student had never visited his father in prison, and the article raised concerns for him about how his father was being treated. He asked, “Do you think I could join the prisoners who are striking?” 

My student wanted to help change a social issue that he felt passionately about, but he did not know how. This is a common sentiment among many of my students; they feel like their voices will not be heard. If the goal of education is to help young people become active and engaged citizens in a democratic society, then we are particularly failing our students of color. These students struggle to see themselves as change makers because so many of the examples of student activism that are held up in the media are of actions led by young people who do not look like them.

So I set out to design a project that would promote youth civic action among my students, centered around a social issue that deeply affects many of them: mass incarceration. The project, which we now do annually, consists of three steps. First, we identify the problem. We ask, “Who is affected by mass incarceration? How are they affected?” Then we analyze root causes. Finally, we develop a goal—identifying a change that must be made to address the problem of mass incarceration—and an action plan that will help us reach it.

This article is the second in a two-part series on teaching about mass incarceration. Read the first part, “Teaching About Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Narrative of Racial Oppression,” to learn how Coven used an op-ed by rapper Meek Mill to engage her students in this conversation.

1. Identify the problem.

Over the years of doing this project, I have learned that it is important to humanize those involved with the criminal justice system while studying mass incarceration. One reason Meek Mill’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times resonated with so many students, including my own, is because they know him through his music; incarceration isn’t the only context they have for him. 

We begin our project by brainstorming a list of assumptions about people involved with the criminal justice system. Responses this year included “danger to society,” “won’t be anything in life,” “deserved it” and “mental illness.” To counter some of these assumptions, students create “Portraits of the Justice System,” in which they each learn—and then tell—the story of someone who has been involved with the system. 

Criminal justice system assumptions
Photography by Rebecca Coven

Some students tell the stories of guest speakers or people they have researched online while others write about friends, family members or even themselves. Writing and sharing these portraits helps students develop a sense of empathy with those who have been involved with the criminal justice system.

After looking at how individuals are affected by our criminal justice system, we expand our focus to examine the groups of people who are disproportionately affected by the rapid growth in U.S. incarceration rates. The Prison Policy Initiative has many useful data visualizations that are easily digestible for students.

Students analyze graphs of incarceration rates over time, broken down by such demographics as race/ethnicity, sex, age and state. They begin to see the problem as a systemic issue, one with devastating effects on the lives of real people. 


2. Analyze root causes.

Once students understand what the problem of mass incarceration is—both on a human and a systemic level—they want to understand why it is a problem. We explore how mass incarceration fits into the historical and ongoing narrative of racial oppression and segregation in the United States. Teaching Tolerance’s resources for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow are incredibly effective for helping students understand the historical and contemporary context for how mass incarceration is a form of racialized social control

We brainstorm as a class the factors that contribute to our country’s high incarceration rates today. Mikva Challenge’s action civics curricula include great lessons on identifying root causes of a social issue. Examples of root causes that my students often identify include the school-to-prison pipeline, drug policies, re-entry and recidivism, and unequal representation in court. Each student then chooses one of the root causes to research and become an expert on.

The Social Justice Standards

For educators helping students build anti-bias knowledge, dispositions and experience, TT’s Social Justice Standards are a valuable resource. The standards outline 20 goals for social justice teaching and learning, each tailored to grade-level outcomes.


Here are just a few of the anchor standards this project supports:


Standard 6: Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people.


Standard 11: Students will recognize stereotypes and relate to people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.


Standard 12: Students will recognize unfairness on the individual level (e.g., biased speech) and injustice at the institutional or systemic level (e.g., discrimination).


Standard 16: Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.


Standard 20: Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.

3. Develop a goal and an action plan for achieving it.

I don’t only want my students to understand how mass incarceration is part of an ongoing narrative of racial oppression; I want them to understand that they can do something to change this narrative.

Based on their research, each student develops a goal for something that can be changed to mitigate the problem of mass incarceration in our country. This can be challenging and overwhelming, to say the least. To give them ideas of what other people are doing, I have groups of students interview people who are working to fight mass incarceration or injustices in our criminal justice system. 

Students’ goals have included implementing more restorative practices in schools, creating more halfway houses for people released from prison and developing more state-funded drug rehabilitation facilities.

Students then develop action plans for achieving this goal using the following steps, based on the work of the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project:

  1. Identify targets: Who has the power to change this?
  2. Build your base: Who are the people directly affected by the problem you are trying to address? 
  3. Identify allies: Beyond your base, who else might support your work?
  4. Develop strategies and tactics: What tools will you use to influence your target (e.g., protests, petitions, boycotting)? 

Our project culminates in a Mass Incarceration Symposium that is open to the city and that my students lead. During this symposium, students present their action plans and engage community members in dialogues about mass incarceration. We try to invite as many people who are “targets”—people who have the power to improve our criminal justice system—as possible so that students can see how their work can directly influence the communities they care about. 

By providing a platform and an authentic audience for their work, I hope that by the end of the project, students see themselves as agents of change.


Resources for teaching about mass incarceration

Coven is a 10th-grade advisor and English teacher at The Workshop School, a public project-based school in West Philadelphia. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. Follow her on Twitter at @RCovs1201.

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