Punishment in an American Prison


In Law and American Society, Dr. Terry Aladjem's takes his students to visit a prison following a unit on punishment in order to apply theories of punishment to the real world.

Before the trip, students spend about three sessions discussing theories of punishment.  They read Kant, Bentham, and Mill's theories of punishment.  They also read about the history of American prisons and Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.  Foucault's book serves as a lens for going to the prison, since Foucault talks about survelliance, the history of the construction of prisons and, what Foucault calls "the power situation."  These ideas guide the students' thinking on the visit; the students want to know how power is working, and what kind of power apparatus the contemporary prison is.

Prior to the day of the trip, Terry sends the students links with the history of the prison, the dress code, and the various logistics of going there.  On the bus ride to the prison, the class passes other prisons, and Terry talks about the history of prisons in Massachusetts.  Once they arrive, they go through the security of the prison.  Terry says that this is an important part of the visit because it gets the students thinking about the intense purpose of the place.  The class next goes through the courtyard.  They are led by the Director of Treatment, who functions as a guide.  Terry makes comments and asks their guide questions from time to time.  Because the prison is open like a campus, the students can see a lot.  While the students are not allowed to speak to the inmates, they pass them while walking through the yard.  Throughout the visit, students see both the high and low security areas.  They also see training programs, like the barber school and college and high school classes.  They also see the gym and inside the cells.  Viewing these different parts of the prison gives students a sense of how time works in punishment; there are different levels, like a quarantine room and shared spaces for the general population.  Prisoners earn priveleges over time for good behavior which affects where they can go.  

Following the visit, the class debriefs orally.  Following the visit, students read Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony."  Many students write about this visit and punishment in the final paper.

Terry notes that this trip is a way to apply theory and philosophy to the real world, which helps the students have a more refined sense of what the theory is about.  Additionally, the visit sets up an intellectual challenge if the students feel that the existing theory doesn't apply to reality.  Indeed, many of the students feel that one of the theories the class read needs to be revised after this visit.  The prison trip is often cited as the most moving part of the class.