Teaching About Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Narrative of Racial Oppression

We need to talk about mass incarceration in schools, and the conversation can’t stop after one discussion.
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Free Meek!

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published an opinion piece by rapper Meek Mill using his own experience with the criminal justice system to call for criminal justice reform. My “teacher Twitter” exploded: My feed was flooded with educators reposting the article and plans to lead discussions about the text with students. I was no exception: The day after it was published, I immediately brought the article in to share with my 10th-graders. 

Before we even began reading, cries of “Free Meek!” echoed through my classroom. But I wanted my students to understand that Meek Mill is not the only person who has experienced injustice at the hands of our criminal justice system; I wanted students to realize that his article speaks to a larger systemic problem that disproportionately affects certain groups of people in our country, black and brown people in particular.

So we began with a simple activity: Move to one side of the room if you know someone who works for the criminal justice system. We included more students: Move if you know someone who has been arrested. If you know someone who has spent time in jail or prison. With each instruction, the divide in the room decreased. By the last question, students looked around and realized nearly every one of them knew someone who had been incarcerated and that the issue of mass incarceration was one that deeply affected their communities—and them.

Reading Meek Mill’s article after this activity evoked outrage, not just because a rapper they so revere was wronged by our criminal justice system but because, as one student shared, “the system itself does not treat all people equally.” 

With his article, Meek Mill provided educators with an accessible tool for bringing the issue of mass incarceration into their classrooms. After its success in my own classroom, I can only imagine the debates it is sparking among students in other schools who might not have otherwise critically examined our country’s criminal justice system. 

However, I want to be clear: While the article is an excellent gateway into an examination of our criminal justice system, it should not be the end of the conversation with our students.

I leveraged Meek Mill’s story to push students to think critically about our criminal justice system as an institution. I created a barometer scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree) on a wall and gave students statements. Their job was to stand at the position on the wall that matched their opinion. Statements included: “I think the criminal justice system in the U.S. is fair to everyone,” “I think prison is important for keeping society safe” and “I think prison does a good job helping people who have committed a crime.” 

There was a common theme in students’ discussions: racism. I pushed them further. “Who or what in this system is racist?” I knew this was the thread I had to follow with my students and that we could not tackle this question in just one lesson.

In discussions about mass incarceration in the United States, we—and our students—are often fed the same statistics: The U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled over the past four decades; our country has the highest prison population in the world, with over 2 million people incarcerated in prisons as well as local and county jails. 

What we do not talk about as often is who gets incarcerated in our country. Or why.


The Myth of Continuous Progress

This past summer I was fortunate enough to hear Professor Hasan Jeffries, Ohio State University history professor and host of the Teaching Hard History podcast, speak on the importance of teaching the difficult parts of our history in schools. When educators stop talking about segregation at the civil rights movement, we perpetuate a dangerously false narrative that racial discrimination and institutional segregation ended with the Civil Rights Act. He argued that, as educators, we need to disrupt the normative narrative of “the story of America” by teaching the repression and regression that has always been a part of our nation’s history. 

The issue of mass incarceration is part of this ongoing history. As such, studying the issue of mass incarceration in our schools is an integral part of understanding both the historical and ongoing narrative of racial oppression and segregation.


Teaching About Mass Incarceration

We can start by providing students with the facts:

In the United States, black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. As a result, black people are disproportionately represented in our prisons: In 2016, black people made up 12 percent of our country’s population but accounted for 33 percent of our prison population. Conversely, white people made up 64 percent of the U.S. population but only 30 percent of our prison population.

Then we can provide context. To understand how incarceration practices today maintain a racial hierarchy, students must understand that this hierarchy’s roots can be traced back through history to slavery. The British North American colonies (and then the United States) has almost always had what Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow calls a “racial undercaste”—a group of people who, because of their race, has been deemed inferior to white, dominant society and thus denied basic freedoms and rights. This dates back to the racial distinctions made between black indentured servants and those of other races and ethnicities and the enslavement of Africans that began in the early 1600s.

When Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, there was an important provision: Slavery was prohibited “except as a punishment for crime.” So while slavery was abolished, racialized social control persisted in other forms. In the South, “black codes” criminalized black people for minor offenses, such as loitering and breaking curfew, leading to more black than white prisoners. And convict leasing allowed states to “rent” prisoners out to work without pay on private railways, mines and large plantations, so many black people were essentially forced back into slavery.

White people also asserted social control through Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation in all aspects of life and work and further marginalized black people. They were denied the right to vote through measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests and felony disenfranchisement. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally ended segregation, yet racial bias and white supremacy persisted. The War on Drugs in the 1970s and 1980s further served to criminalize black people by imposing longer mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine (primarily used in urban areas) as opposed to cocaine.

This racial bias can also be seen today in the disproportionate numbers of black people who are arrested, convicted of crimes and incarcerated. Black people are six times more likely than white people to be sent to prison for the same crimes. 

Contextualized this way, American mass incarceration can be understood as a modern-day manifestation of white supremacy—another way to maintain social control following the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow. But we can’t help students recognize this with a single lesson.

I am grateful that Meek Mill used his platform as a public figure to provide us as educators with an accessible tool for engaging our students on the topic of mass incarceration. In doing so, he has started the conversation about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform for many classrooms. Now it is our responsibility to continue it.

Resources for teaching about mass incarceration

Stay tuned to find out how Coven teaches about mass incarceration beyond one lesson and guides students in an annual, community-involved project.

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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