The literature, art and reality of prisons in the U.S.

Instructor: Ken Ehrlich


Spring 2019

CalArts School of Critical Studies

Wednesdays 12 – 2 in Cafe A

This class will examine the transformation of the prison system in the United States following the 1960's through an in-depth look at the experiences of prisoners, including modes of self-expression and resistance and through the lens of scholars dedicated to understanding the political dynamics of the Prison Industrial Complex. The emphasis on prisons themselves, the broader dynamics of policing, the war on drugs and social attitudes about criminology is designed to expose students to the network of social and political forces that shape the criminal justice system. Particular focus will be given to the racial dynamics of policing, sentencing and prison life; the historical roots of contemporary criminal and legal issues; and the broad reach of the Prison Industrial Complex.

The first section of the class is devoted to writing by prisoners about prison life. Students will examine various narrative and literary strategies employed to communicate about life in prison. In the second part of the course, historical and scholarly writing contextualizes the social and political implications of a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The final section looks at the ways that prisons are visually represented in the work of contemporary artists and the ways that prisoners engage in significant forms of cultural and expressive activities. Students will be expected to participate actively in course discussions and complete a final research project. Attendance and participation are a crucial aspect of this course.


  1. Each student is required to keep a course journal. This can either be a notebook or it may take digital form, such as a blog or tumblr. Each week, students will post reading notes and questions as well as in–class notes. By the end of the semester, three journal entries will be elaborated into more developed 2–3 page response papers. You may turn these in at any point in the semester (I encourage you not to wait until the final weeks of class to complete these shorter reflection pieces.)

  2. Research a political prisoner and write a letter to that person. Turn in a copy of the letter to the Instructor as well. (We will discuss in class what constitutes a political prisoner. My definition for this category is broad. If for any reason, you do not wish to share the content of the letter with the instructor, a summary of the letter and some background on the prisoner may serve as a substitute. )

  3. The most important assignment in the class is the final research project. The project requires significant independent research, a seven to ten page written paper and a presentation to the class. It may also include artistic components. By week nine, each student must have a research topic identified and a short proposal developed with at least three sources.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will become familiar with historical and contemporary debates regarding incarceration, policing and criminology.

  2. Students will learn to engage with and think critically about socially marginalized voices and perspectives.

  1. Students will learn to consider a policy question from artistic, social and political perspectives.

Course Outcomes:

    1. Students will write a series of Reaction Papers and participate in discussions relating the course readings to their own experience and to cultural preconceptions of prison life.

    2. Students will write about a broad range of cultural and scholarly approaches to a politically charged subject matter.

    3. Students will research some aspect of the Prison Industrial Complex using both critical and artistic methods, culminating in an essay and a class presentation.


Week one: Introductions: definitions and critical discourses.

Week two: Prison education and writing letters from inside

Reading: Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson (selections)

Week three: Writing recidivism

Reading:Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women's Prison Writings, 200 to the Present edited by Judith A. Scheffler (selections)

Week four:Live from death row

Reading: America's Condemned: Death Row Inmates in Their Own Words by Dan Malone (excerpts) and Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Teetering on the Brink between Death and Life,” The Yale Law Review 100 (January 1991): 993ff.

Week five: The case for prison abolition

Reading: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

Week six: Social control

Reading: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander Introduction and Ch. 1 – 3.

Week seven: Social control continued

Reading: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Ch. 4 – 6.

Week eight: The lure of profit and the matrix of power

Reading: Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces by Radley Balko

Week nine: Thinking inside

Reading: Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime by Dylan Rodriguez

Week ten: The War on Drugs

Reading: The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 by Kathleen J. Frydl and Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum

Week eleven: Invention and improvisation as intervention and resistance

Reading: Improvised Weapons in American Prisons by Jack Luger and Prisoner Inventions by Angelo and Temporary Services.

Week twelve: Building cages and/or alternatives

Reading: The Human Cage: A Brief History of Prison Architecture by Norman Bruce Johnston and After the Crime: The Power of Restorative Justice Dialogues between Victims and Violent Offenders (selections) by Susan L. Miller

Week thirteen: Picturing Incarceration: The art of Alyse Emdur, Josh Begley, Katie Herzog, Ashley Hunt and Paul Rucker

Reading: Prison Landscapes by Alyse Emdur

Week fourteen: Student presentations

Week fifteen: Student presentations

Grading Policy/Absences

CalArts does not grade on the A-F scale. We grade using:

  1. High Pass (HP): Passing with Excellence

  2. Pass (P): Passing with Quality

  3. Low Pass (LP): Passing

  4. Incomplete (I): Temporary evaluation. Through agreement between student and instructor, Incompletes must be made up during the following semester. Incomplete evaluations not made up within the specified period of time will convert to NC.

  5. No Credit (NC): Work did not meet the criteria for credit. “NC” evaluations may not be converted to credit bearing grades except by petition to the deans council initiated by the instructor of the class or, in the instructor’s absence, the dean of the school offering the course.

The following changes to the grading policy have been in effect since Fall 2013:

NC (no credit) grades will appear on a student's permanent academic record

  1. NX (insufficient attendance) grades will no longer be used

  2. Withdrawal Period will be extended until the 10th week of the semester

NC grades must appear on external records to ensure accurate reporting to peer institutions and for financial aid reporting. While CalArts does not use a Grade Point Average (GPA) as part of its marking system, the following formula will be used for external purposes: HP =4.00, P=3.00, LP=2.00, NC=0.00.

Students will no longer receive NX grades, but the longer withdrawal period (through the 10th week of the semester) will provide an option for students to exit a course without receiving a failing grade. To drop a course during the extended withdrawal period, a student will obtain the Course Withdrawal form from the Registrar’s Office, consult with his or her mentor, obtain the course instructor’s signature verifying the last date of attendance, and return the form to the Registrar’s Office. The course will remain on the student's record with a "W" grade, but the grade of "W" will have no effect on the grade point average.

If a student misses more than 3 sessions of class and does not pursue the withdrawal option, a NC will be given and will appear on external records.

To read the revised Grading Policy in its entirety as well as frequently asked questions, click on the link below:


Change of Grade

In the interests of operating an equitable grading system, Critical Studies stringently enforces CalArts’ change of grade policy. Students have one semester upon receiving an “Incomplete” grade to make up any missing coursework and/or projects. If this work has not been completed by the end of the semester, the Incomplete converts automatically to a “No Credit”. After that time, changes require the approval of Deans Council. Deans Council will approve such grade changes only in the case of extreme, extenuating circumstances or in cases of administrative/faculty error.

Services for Students with Disabilities

CalArts will provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities who have registered with the Student Affairs office.  Registration with the Office of Student Affairs is on a voluntary, self-identifying basis. Services are available only after a student has presented certified, current documentation of the disability from an appropriate medical or educational specialist, and this documentation has been reviewed and accepted as complete. Please go to http://calarts.edu/student-services/disabilities for extensive information on services for students with disabilities.


Critical Studies endeavors to teach students the essential skills and basic ethics involved in any academic enquiry. To this end, we are committed to observing the policy on plagiarism set out in the CalArts Course Catalog. This stipulates that plagiarism is the use of ideas and/or quotations (from the internet, books, films, television, newspapers, articles, the work of other students, works of art, media, etc.) without proper credit to the author/artist. Critical Studies holds to the view that plagiarism constitutes intellectual theft and is a serious breach of acceptable conduct. It is also the policy of CalArts that students who misrepresent source material as their own original work and fail to credit it have committed plagiarism and are subject to disciplinary action. In the case of Critical Studies, any student caught plagiarizing will immediately be given a ‘no credit’ for that class. The student will not be allowed to re-write the paper, and if there is further evidence of plagiarism, Critical Studies will recommend more severe disciplinary action, including suspension or dismissal.

If you have any questions regarding plagiarism or want direction on how to credit source material, ask the member of faculty and refer to reference guides on permanent reserve in the CalArts library. The CalArts reference librarians may be able to offer additional information as well.