This past spring, I taught a Social Problems course for the first time (this is a 200-level Sociology course). Well, actually, I taught half of the course--my colleague Robert Adelman taught the other half, and we each taught our halves in Buffalo and on our campus in Singapore, switching locales halfway through the semester (our university runs a bachelor’s degree program in Singapore, so we regularly send faculty over to teach). It was a fun course to share--we each were able to teach topics and problems that we knew something about and found interesting.
One of the social problems I chose to cover in my half of the course was mass incarceration. Students already knew a lot about imprisonment and were fairly unimpressed with my slides full of statistics and graphs. So, I tried to spend a good amount of time talking about effects of incarceration, not just on the person in--or formerly in--prison (for example, employment, college admissions, and voting), but also on neighborhoods, and especially, the effects of incarceration on loved ones.
We didn’t have time to read the excellent new book Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality by Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildeman, but we did have time to consider the effects of parental incarceration on children by watching a segment of Sesame Street*. Meet Alex, one of the newest muppet characters:
Students in both Singapore and the U.S. had very strong reactions to Sesame Street’s incorporation of a character with incarcerated parents. Everyone recognized that Sesame Street was trying to normalize the experience (shared by over 2.7 million children in the U.S.), but students were divided as to whether that normalization was a Very Good or Very Bad Idea. Some students felt that there was value in kids feeling shameful and ostracized because they had a parent in prison -- these students argued that those negative feelings would have a powerful deterrent effect later in life. Others, however, argued that kids should be held blameless for their parents’ actions and should be able to feel “normal” and comfortable, that they shouldn’t have to hide anything or feel ashamed. In both classrooms, we moved on to have a great discussion about the ripple effects of incarceration and the purpose of punishment. This discussion seemed particularly poignant in Singapore, where students don’t typically question government or police practices, including capital punishment and other forms of retributive justice.
In all, a video clip less than 3 minutes long spurred a great deal of discussion (even in Singapore, where students are notoriously quiet) where we covered a lot of terrain. If you’re looking for a new angle on mass incarceration, I highly recommend!
* I learned about Alex through Chris Uggen’s excellent Public Criminology blog.