Ethics & Public Policy: American Incarceration

Nolan Bennett
University of Georgetown
Discipline(s): Political ScienceGovernment
Syllabus Last Updated: 
August, 2016

The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once remarked that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What then could we say of mass imprisonment in the United States, a nation with five percent of the world’s population yet twenty-five percent of its prisoners? How should we understand American democracy if one in twenty-three adults are under some form of state supervision, if one in ten children have had a parent incarcerated, or if one in three black men born today will enter prison at some point?

In this seminar we will study the ethical and political dimensions of public policy by focusing on the ideas, institutions and history of American incarceration. Students can expect to read broadly from political science and theory, philosophy, history, sociology, and from the testimonies of those living within, working for, or acting against the carceral state. Our goal for the course will be to develop critical skills in analyzing the policies of incarceration according to the concepts of justice we find in history, law, and society. As such, we will be less concerned with whether mass imprisonment is “just” or “unjust” but how it determines justice and what its many institutions and ideas reveal about the democracy in which we live and act.

We will begin by looking at theories of freedom and punishment fundamental to the United States, before working through a series of case issues in incarceration that will take us from the city to the jail to the prison and back again. By the end of the course, we will have built through reading, writing, and discussion a set of theoretical goals for incarceration in policy and practice and a working list of ethical challenges and solutions to issues such as solitary confinement, mental health, prison labor and privatization, life sentences without parole, race and immigration, felon disenfranchisement, and so on. In the last part of our seminar, each student will pursue original research to investigate a specific concern in the ethics and public policy of incarceration.