Let’s Talk About Mass Incarceration

Uneasy about discussing mass incarceration—and its related issues like race, poverty, and punishment—with your students? Here are some resources to get you started.

Common representations of the criminal justice system, like TV crime shows, often paint a romantic picture—heroic police and detectives keeping evil criminals out of our communities. But, the reality is strikingly different.      

The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation. And it disproportionately targets and imprisons Black people, the poor, and people of color. 

This isn’t an accident. This country’s criminal justice system was born from policies, implicit biases, and societal structures that promote racial disparities.

Our seventh “Let’s Talk About” is on mass incarceration and includes resources on its roots and its alternatives. Teaching about mass incarceration pushes students to reimagine models of justice that are restorative and liberating, rather than oppressive.

How to Use This Collection

Suggested below are steps to a thoughtful and meaningful discussion with your students about school shootings. Choose what is appropriate for your class.

1. Students complete a pre-survey (optional).
2. Choose at least one YES! article and one outside article for a robust compare and contrast.
3. Use the discussion questions—or craft your own—to gauge your students’ understanding and opinions.
4. Students complete a post-survey (optional).
5. Explore curriculum if you’d like to dive deeper.

Reading Materials

YES! Articles

The Radio Show Bringing Prisoners Messages from Home

Youth Sentenced to Life in Prison Get a Second Chance

When Communities Say No One Should Stay in Jail Just Because They’re Poor

Opioid Addicts Get Compassion. Crack Addicts Get Mass Incarceration

What the Insanity of Mass Incarceration Has Done To Us

Outside Resources

The Destructive Lie Behind “Mass Incarceration” (Time)

How the School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Created (Atlantic)

Jay Z – The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush (Drug Policy Alliance)

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think people of color, particularly Black men, are incarcerated at an extraordinarily higher rate than any other demographic? How is someone’s race, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, or gender identity treated in this country’s criminal justice system?

2. Think of the school-to-prison pipeline—the idea that students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out of school, and therefore, much more likely to go to prison in their lifetime. How does your school discipline its students? Is its discipline policies and practices fair to all students? If not, what do you think school administration (and school resource officers) should do to treat all students justly?

3. Individuals make their own decisions—sometimes poor ones that land them in prison. Yet there are other factors that increase chances for imprisonment. How much responsibility should society take to help heal individuals from trauma, broken families, and abuse?


Teaching ‘The New Jim Crow’ (Teaching Tolerance)

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