Understanding the Prison Label

What is the long-term harm and wider impact of mass incarceration on people and communities of color? The racial caste system established and perpetuated by mass incarceration continues beyond a prison sentence and extends into families, communities and society at large. The criminalization and demonization of black men creates a “prison label” of stigma and shame that damages the black community as a whole.
Grade Level

Teaching 'The New Jim Crow'
Lesson 8: Understanding the Prison Label

Essential Question

  • What is the long-term harm and wider impact of mass incarceration on people and communities of color? 


Big Idea

  • The racial caste system established and perpetuated by mass incarceration continues beyond a prison sentence and extends into families, communities and society at large. The criminalization and demonization of black men creates a “prison label” of stigma and shame that damages the black community as a whole.



  • Students will describe the challenges faced by ex-offenders and convicted drug felons when they attempt to reintegrate into society after they are released from prison.   
  • Students will explain what the “prison label” is and the ways in which it harms individuals and communities.


Required Materials


Optional Materials


Background Knowledge and Knowledge Areas

  • debtor’s prison
  • lynch mob
  • minstrel show
  • popular culture references (gangsta rap, Flavor of Love, etc.)
  • restrictive covenant
  • wallet mistaken for a gun (Amadou Diallo, 1999)
  • “whites only” sign
  • United Nations Human Rights Committee


Tier II and III Vocabulary

  • commodification
  • counterintuitive
  • demonize
  • grass-roots
  • misdemeanor
  • misogyny
  • pander
  • pervasive
  • proxy
  • rampant
  • romanticize
  • solidarity


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): 

  • black male teens
  • public assistance
  • unemployment


Before Reading

Prepare students for thinking about the themes and topics in the excerpt “The Cruel Hand” with the strategy 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.) 


During Reading

Engage students in a close reading of the excerpt. You can have students read by themselves or with a partner.

  • Independent Reading. 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. 

  • Partner Reading. Have students read the excerpt in pairs using the Say Something strategy. Say Something gives students the opportunity to collaboratively interpret text and check for understanding.


After Reading

The goal of this after-reading activity is to foster empathy and understanding through narrative and drama. Using a modified Reader’s Theatre strategy, students will work together in “troupes” to script short performances that demonstrate what “the cruel hand” looks and feels like for everyday people.


Reader’s Theatre: The Cruel Hand (A Play in Five Acts)

1. Begin by passing out and reading the following scenario in The New Jim Crow to the class: 

You are Clyde Richardson, a thirty-year-old, African American father of three who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in the public housing apartments where he lives. You are innocent. After you have been in jail for two weeks, your wife is struggling to make her shifts at work and take care of your three young children at home without your support. You are eager to get home to your family. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence.

While you are in jail, the foreman at the construction site where you had been working hired someone to replace you.  Unable to afford a babysitter, your wife had to cut her hours in half so she could stay home with the kids, and now she is unable to get that shift back.  Finally, after 8 weeks in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to be with your wife and children. Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years of probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are also now branded a drug felon.

2.  Tell the class that they will be performing a 10-minute play called “The Cruel Hand.” The play will tell the story of what it’s been like for Clyde Richardson since he got out of jail two weeks ago. Students will integrate what they learned from the excerpt into the play.

3.  Divide your class into five “troupes.” Each troupe will be responsible for performing an act in the play. 

4.  Assign each troupe an act. Their task is to write a two-minute scene that shows Richardson trying to reach a goal or meet a basic need.

  1. Allow troupes time to prepare and rehearse. Adjust the activity based on your students, learning goals and schedule. You could allow 10 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to perform, or you could extend the activity into a fuller production. 

  2. Have troupes perform one at a time with the other four troupes as their audience.

  3. Once the five acts have been performed, invite students to join you in the “actor’s studio” where they will discuss the play. 


Actor’s Studio Discussion Questions

Unlike previous lessons, where students focused primarily on close engagement with the text, this lesson uses the text to develop empathy and to help students think about mass incarceration on a personal and community level, not just historical or political. Hence, the discussion is less text-dependent than those in previous lessons.

Arrange chairs in a circle. The following are suggested discussion questions to help debrief the Reader’s Theatre activity: 

  1. How did your group prepare for your performance? Which parts of the excerpt were helpful to you?

  2. What was the most difficult part of doing this activity? Was it difficult in a good or bad way? How did you deal with that difficulty?

  3. How was being a performer different than being in the audience? What were you thinking and feeling in those different roles?

  4. Fast forward six months. How do you think Clyde Richardson is doing? One year? Five years? Ten years?

  5. How common do you think Richardson’s situation is? Do you know anyone who is in a similar predicament? If not, do you think members of your community might be?

  6. In the scenario you were given to act out, Richardson was innocent and wrongly accused. Did his innocence influence the narrative of our play? How so?

  7. Does Richardson’s, or any convicted drug felon’s, guilt or innocence make a difference in terms of what they experience once they are released, particularly in meeting their basic needs (food, work and housing)? What does that suggest about our criminal justice system?

  8. What is the “prison label” that Alexander describes? Do you agree with her that the crisis of mass incarceration extends beyond a prison sentence? 


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 Cruel Hand” 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 9 - Parallels Between Mass Incarceration and Jim Crow

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