Initiative Examines Mass Incarceration From Past to Present

New initiative aims to foster understanding and  discussion on the topic of mass incarceration through the lens of history and current events.
New initiative aims to foster understanding and  discussion on the topic of mass incarceration through the lens of history and current events.

By Christopher Zoukis

In 2014, the Colorado College history department embarked on an initiative called the Social Issues and Historical Context Initiative, with the goal of demonstrating the connections between history and current issues and events.

One of the first initiatives, funded through a three-year grant by a Colorado College alum, was The Past, Present, Prison project, spearheaded by history professor Carol Neel. The goal of the project is to bring together students, faculty, and the community to facilitate discourse, and to educate the public about mass incarceration at both a local and global scale, and the realities of the current prison system.

Neel and her students have been meeting these goals in a number of ways. A variety of speakers have been hosted on campus to talk about issues in the prison system, there is an active Prison Project Facebook page, and a recent photographic exhibition called Incarceration Nation demonstrated the realities of prison life.

Neel’s history course, Encountering the Past – The Long History of the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City, prompted students to delve into research on prisons in the Colorado area. The resulting articles on the website showcase student findings. The site features essays on a variety of relevant and hard-hitting topics, as well as a timeline of prison education in the U.S., and information about the history of mass incarceration.

Essays fall into six categories, exploring issues including mental illness, the economics of prisons and rehabilitation. From the prison industrial complex to incarceration of minorities, these are important topics for discussion and change. The site includes important dates, archival images and numerous resources.

While the site currently features research and information largely related to Colorado, students are hoping to expand its scope and plan to launch a blog to better engage in meaningful conversation about mass incarceration.

Neel has ambitions to expand the scope of her prison-related programming to include inmate education in liberal arts. After working with the Colorado Department of Corrections for several years, advocating for undergraduate education for prisoners after all funding was cut in the 1990s, a new program will start in 2017 that will see a humanities course taught at the Youthful Offenders Prison in Pueblo.

Neel is hoping more courses will be offered, and that college students can become an integral part of delivering inmate teaching and tutoring. Despite safety concerns by the DOC, Neel and students are hoping for programs similar to those in other states, and remain committed to education and remediating mass incarceration.

Advocacy and educational initiatives like Neel’s at Colorado College are a vital way to educate and engage the public on the realities of mass incarceration, both past and present. Hopefully projects like this can be expanded, spurring further engagement and commitment to remedy the issues surrounding the current justice program. Neel’s multifaceted approach reaches students in classrooms, internet users, and the general public through speaker series and exhibitions to effectively educate and demonstrate the need for action on prison reform.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com