Shooting the Core

Redesigning Contemporary Civilization & the Core Curriculum

Author: mbh2163

Two Survival Handbooks

In my last blog post, I discussed how Christianity helps many inmates manage their experience of incarceration. Here, I will consider a coping mechanism of a decidedly different character. In a 1999 episode of This American Life, the radio show broadcasted an excerpt from Stephen Donaldson’s Hooking Up: Protective Pairing for Punks (listen here:[1] A survival handbook written by a former inmate for men entering prison, Hooking Up instructs men how to find a “daddy” in order to enter a “protective pairing” as a “punk.”[2] In exchange for providing sexual services for this “daddy,” doing laundry, cleaning, delivering coffee, and giving back rubs, the “daddy” will protect the “punk” from gang rape and violence at the hands of other prisoners.[3] Hooking Up raises many complex issues about prison, including hierarchies among inmates, sexual violence, and the performance and construction of femininity and masculinity. However, for the purposes of this blog post I will analyze Hooking Up in conjunction with The Handbook of the stoic philosopher Epictetus in order to compare the survival strategies and pragmatic solutions these texts propose to individuals living in chaotic situations.


The advice Donaldson provides in Hooking Up is largely pragmatic and prescriptive; he instructs prospective “punks” to interview any previous men a “daddy” may have been involved with, to draw up written contracts, and to ask potential “daddies” how they treat their women, which according to Donaldson is a good indication of how they will treat their “punks.”[4] By contrast, Epictetus’s advice is less concerned with specific actions and more focused on the cultivation of an attitude of indifference as a way to cope with life in a chaotic world. Yet Donaldson also considers indifference to be a powerful survival tool. He recognizes that becoming the submissive partner and taking the passive role in sexual encounters is the hardest part of becoming a “punk” for many men, damaging their masculine self-images.[5] However, Donaldson argues, “No matter what you have to do, remember that it is all an act, and that you can go back to your normal behavior as soon as you get out.”[6] Similarly, Epictetus instructs, “Remember that you are an actor in a play… What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.”[7] Donaldson and Epictetus agree that accepting one’s assigned role as externally imposed rather than a reflection of one’s inner character is an effective coping mechanism. Furthermore, both men extol the benefits of learning to find enjoyment in their assigned roles. Donaldson writes of men who are able to “focus on the other [non-sexual] aspects of the relationship and find some value there” or to “treasure the security it brings.”[8] Likewise, Epictetus advises, “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”[9] Finally, Epictetus and Donaldson reflect on the value of wisdom. While Epictetus advocates indifference, he also values intelligence. He writes, “It shows lack of natural talent to spend time on what concerns the body… turn your whole attention toward the faculty of judgment.”[10] Likewise, Donaldson comforts future “punks” with the knowledge that although they may have to perform undesired sexual acts, being the submissive partner in a relationship with a “daddy” will give them “a much better understanding of men and women”[11] once they leave prison.


Although written almost two thousand years apart, Stephen Donaldson’s Hooking Up and Epictetus’s The Handbook bear some striking resemblances. Both handbooks are concerned with providing pragmatic advice for those living in chaotic situations and under circumstances largely beyond their control. Indeed, prison is a powerful example of such an environment, and thus a stoic state of mind may prove an effective coping mechanism for inmates.



Epictetus. Translated by Nicholas P. White. The Handbook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.


“Who’s Your Daddy?” from Lockup. This American Life. January 8, 1999. Accessed December 5, 2015.


[1] “Who’s Your Daddy?” from Lockup, This American Life, January 9, 1999, accessed December 5, 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Epictetus, translated by Nicholas P. White, The Handbook (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 13.

[8] “Who’s Your Daddy?”

[9] Epictetus, The Handbook, 13.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Finding God in Prison

The narrative of hardened criminals finding God in prison has become so clichéd that it is now frequently mocked in popular culture. Take the hit television show, Orange is the New Black, a “dramedy” chronicling life in a women’s prison in upstate New York. One of the characters on the show, Tiffany “Penssatucky” Dogget, is sent to prison for shooting a nurse at an abortion clinic after the nurse makes a snide comment about Penssatucky’s many abortions. After the murder, Penssatucky becomes a hero of the Christian pro-life movement. Pro-life activists pay her legal fees and spin a new narrative about Penssatucky’s life, wherein she is not a criminal meth addict but rather a crusader for the lives of unborn fetuses. Penssatucky adopts her new faith with zeal, which Orange is the New Black plays for laughs. Take this clip, for example (link:[1] Penssatucky is portrayed as a stupid, crude hillbilly with comically ridiculous religious views. Accordingly, Penssatucky’s gradual abandonment of her evangelical faith over the course of the series represents her character development and growth.


Yet religious conversion in prison is a deeply felt experience for many prisoners. This is true for adherents of many religions – Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam stand out as a particularly strong example of the potency of religious experience in prison. In this blog post, however, I will focus on Christianity, using the Gospel According to Matthew to help understand the appeal of Christianity for those who are incarcerated. I will intersperse my textual analysis with some especially powerful images from Serge J-F. Levy’s series of photographs documenting religious practice in maximum-security prisons.


Serge J-F. Levy(c)2013-Faith08.jpg.CROP.original-original. Levy(c)2013-Faith08

A prisoner praying at Minnesota Correction Facility[2]


In a 2006 study of prisoners who converted to Christianity, criminologists Shadd Maruna, Louise Wilson, and Kathryn Curran argue many prisoners use conversion to overcome the stigma of their imprisonment. Christianity thus serves as a “tool for shame management.”[3] Rather than identify as prisoners or criminals, converts come to see themselves first and foremost as Christians.[4] Furthermore, Christianity offers prisoners a “framework for forgiveness.”[5] For those who have committed serious crimes, the concept of equality is particularly appealing, suggesting that “all people need forgiveness and we are all children of God.”[6] Indeed, in the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus warns, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgiven men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew, 7:14-15).

 Serge J-F. Levy(c)2013-Faith07.jpg.CROP.original-original. Levy(c)2013-Faith07

Prisoners baptize one another in a laundry cart at Minnesota Correction Facility[7]


Significantly, sinners play a central role in the Gospel According to Matthew. This is not to say that Matthew is lax about religious rules; in fact, the religious dictates in the gospel are in many cares far more stringent than those in the Hebrew Bible. For example, not only may one not have extramarital sex, but “one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew, 5:27). Nevertheless, Jesus displays great compassion for sinners. When Jesus’s disciples question his decision to eat dinner with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus tells them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners” (Matthew, 9:11-13). Those who reform are true Christians. Indeed, Jesus tells the Jewish priests at the temple in Jerusalem, “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him” (Matthew, 21:32). Throughout Matthew, Jesus displays genuine faith in the ability of sinners to reform.

Serge J-F. Levy(c)2013-Faith05.jpg.CROP.original-original. Levy(c)2013-Faith05

A prayer circle at Louisiana State Penitentiary[8]


I thus argue that religious experience in prison is more genuine and nuanced than popular shows like Orange is the New Black suggest. Indeed, it is unsurprising that Christianity should hold genuine appeal for those who are incarcerated. Conversion to Christianity offers prisoners a path to forgiveness and validates their human worth, unlike the harsh American prison system. Rather than carrying the stigma of criminality, through conversion, prisoners are able to reinvent themselves as Christians worthy of God and entrance into the kingdom of heaven.




Maruna, Shadd, Louise Wilson, and Kathryn Curran. “Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative.” Research in Human Development 3 (2006): 161-184.


Netflix. “The Chickening.” Orange is the New Black video, 1:34. July 11, 2013.


Teicher, Jordan G. “Finding God in Maximum Security Prison.” Slate, January 3, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2015.


“The Gospel According to Matthew” in May, Herbert G., and Bruce M. Metzger, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Note: I tried to speak with members of the Riverside Church Christian Prison Ministry for this blog post. In doing so, I hoped to understand the religious motivations behind members’ work with prisoners and desire to institute prison reform. However, I never received responses to my phone calls to the organization, and when I tried to attend a meeting listed on their website, no one ever showed up.

[1] Netflix, “The Chickening,” Orange is the New Black video, 1:34, July 11, 2013,

[2] Jordan G. Teicher, “Finding God in Maximum Security Prison,” Slate, January 3, 2014, accessed December 5, 2015,

[3] Shadd Maruna, Louise Wilson, and Kathryn Curran, “Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative,” Research in Human Development 3 (2006), 164.

[4] Maruna et al., “Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars,” 174.

[5] Ibid., 175.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] Teicher, “Finding God in Maximum Security Prison.”

[8] Teicher, “Finding God in Maximum Security Prison.”

Suffering and Suicide in Prison

For Catholic theologian St. Augustine, suicide was an issue of grave concern. Writing City of God in the fifth century C.E., St. Augustine worried that Catholics would kill themselves en masse in order to become martyrs. He thus used scripture to argue unequivocally that “Christians have no authority to commit suicide in any circumstances.”[1] According to St. Augustine, “We take the command ‘You shall not kill’ as applying to human beings, that is, other persons and oneself. For to kill oneself is to kill a human being.”[2] Rather than kill oneself in response to hardship, St. Augustine emphasized the righteousness of suffering. St. Augustine reasoned, “Christians worship the true God and they yearn for a heavenly country; will they not have more reason to refrain from the crime of suicide, if God’s providence subjects them for a time to their enemies for their probation or reformation?”[3] Thus, “Greatness of spirit is not the right term to apply to one who has killed himself because he lacked strength to endure hardships… we rightly ascribe greatness to a spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it.”[4]


Today, the debate over the relative merits of death versus protracted suffering often manifests itself in discussions of whether those convicted of particularly serious crimes should receive the death penalty or life in prison. For example, during the trial earlier this year of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, media outlets debated whether Tsarnaev should be put to death or spend the rest of his life at the notorious federal prison, ADX Florence. In this CBS news clip (link:,[5] reporters interview a former warden of ADX Florence, Bob Hood. Describing a prison where inmates spend twenty-three hours per day alone in their cells and one hour in a small exercise cage, Hood proclaims that ADX Florence “was not designed with humanity in mind.”[6] He continues, “If they’re really looking for revenge and know the system, they should be asking for life imprisonment at the supermax.”[7] The reporters conclude, “Death is easier than life at the federal supermax.”[8] Like St. Augustine, many who weighed in on the Tsarnaev case believed suffering to be more powerful than death. Of course, rather than viewing suffering as an indication of religious righteousness, these people wanted Tsarnaev to suffer as punishment.


Photo of a cell at ADX Florence[9]


Indeed, the suffering of incarceration can be so intense that many inmates do attempt suicide. Tellingly, suicide prevention is a main goal of the mental health division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In fact, their website’s mental health page talks exclusively about suicide and suicide prevention, emphasizing that their suicide rate is lower than the general American population and that prison staff are “ever-vigilant in their efforts to both prevent suicide and respond rapidly to potential crises.”[10] While no other mental health resources are mentioned, the website includes instructions for family members and friends concerning how to alert prison staff of a possible suicide risk and links to three websites of organizations that work in the field of suicide prevention. It is a bit perplexing why suicide prevention should be such a grave concern of a prison system that is not averse to extreme cruelty (see description of ADX Florence above) and that is often perfectly comfortable carrying out the death penalty. Perhaps overly pessimistically, I imagine that prisons are mostly worried about avoiding lawsuits. In any event, if a prisoner is going to die, the American prison system is determined that it not be on his/her own terms.


However, not everyone agrees that prisoners should be barred from choosing to end their own lives. While prisoners suffering terminal illnesses (physical or psychological) and in severe amounts of pain are not eligible for physician-assisted suicide in the United States, in Belgium they are. Earlier this year, serial rapist Frank Van Den Bleeken requested to be euthanized, citing an incurable psychological disorder. The case incited international debate. In January, the BBC published a collection of short opinion pieces on the topic. Philosopher Rebecca Roache of the University of London argued Van den Bleeken should be allowed access to euthanasia: “If we view euthanasia as a type of medical treatment—as there is good reason to do, at least in Belgium, where it is implemented by medical professionals in response to medical problems—then Van den Bleeken should be treated like any free citizen. This is because prisoners, in any civilized country, are not denied access to medical treatment as part of their punishment.”[11] By contrast, Daniel Sokol, a lawyer and medical ethicist, said that euthanasia for prisoners carries a “whiff of the death penalty,” “a form of abandonment,” and a “stain on civilised society.”[12] Instead, Sokol advocated increasing psychiatric care in prisons. Like St. Augustine, Sokol exhibits a staunch commitment to the commandment, “You shall not kill.” The American prison system, of course, does not operate on this principal; thirty-five inmates were put to death in the United States in 2014. Yet suicide prevention remains a principal preoccupation of American prisons. Ultimately, the American prison system is determined that the way inmates live, die, and suffer will not be on their own terms.




“Former Warden Says Death Is Better Than Life in Supermax.” CBS Boston. April 22, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015.


“Mental Health.” Federal Bureau of Prisons. Accessed November 16, 2015.


Rodriguez, Sal. “Inside ADX Supermax: ‘A Bloody Nightmare.’” Solitary Watch. Accessed December 10, 2015.


“Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?” BBC News. January 7, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015.


St. Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin, 1972.

[1] St. Augustine, City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1972), 32.

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, 32.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] “Former Warden Says Death is Better Than Life in Supermax,” CBS Boston, April 22, 2015, accessed November 16, 2015,

[6] “Former Warden Says Death is Better Than Life in Supermax.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sal Rodriguez, “Inside ADX Supermax: ‘A Bloody Nightmare,’ Solitary Watch, accessed December 10, 2015,

[10] “Mental Health,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, accessed November 16, 2015,

[11] “Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?” BBC News, January 7, 2015, accessed November 16, 2015,

[12] “Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?”

The Case Against Imprisonment and Enslavement

In 1515, Bartolomé de Las Casas gave up his slaves and encomienda in the Spanish West Indies. Slave labor could be highly lucrative for individual slaveholders and was becoming increasingly important to the economy of the Spanish Empire. However, as a result of his interactions with the indigenous peoples of the West Indies, de Las Casas concluded that their enslavement by Europeans was unjust. In An Apologetic History of the West Indies, de Las Casas lamented the general trend in European writing on the indigenous peoples of the Americas – “that these peoples of the Indies, lacking human governance and ordered nations, did not have the power of reason to govern themselves.”[1] Instead, de Las Casas aimed “to demonstrate the truth, which is the opposite.”[2] Using a kind of proto-ethnography, de Las Casas described the highly developed economy, government, judicial system, and military of these indigenous peoples, humanizing his subjects through his writing and concluding that in many cases these indigenous peoples were more “civilized” than their European counterparts.


Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.41.16 PM

Theodore De Bry’s illustration for de Las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies highlights the violent “barbarism” that de Las Casas argued characterized much of European colonization.[3]


De Las Casas carefully deconstructed the categories of “barbarian” and “civilized,” illustrating both the complexity and the relativism of these terms. For example, while acknowledging that the indigenous peoples of the West Indies were barbarians in that they could not communicate effectively in Spanish, de Las Casas pointed out, “In this we are as barbarian to them as they to us.”[4] Significantly, in de Las Casas’s complex four-level classification scheme of barbarians, only the third type, “who by their strange, harsh and evil customs, or by their evil and perverse inclination, turn out cruel and ferocious and, unlike other men, are not governed by reason,”[5] may be enslaved. Following Aristotle, de Las Casas called these people “slaves by nature,” writing that “wise men can hunt or track them like animals in order to bring them under control and make use of them… and profit their wise regent from their physical strength, because nature has made them robust for any work and chores which they might be ordered to do.”[6] According to de Las Casas, the indigenous peoples of the West Indies were definitively not of this mold. Instead, “They have their kingdoms and kings, armies, well-ruled and orderly states, houses, treasuries, and homes; they live under laws, codes and ordinances; in administering justice they prejudice no one.”[7] Thus enslaving them for profit or committing violent acts against them would be both unjust and inhumane.


There are some striking parallels between Europeans’ enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas and the existence of private, for-profit prisons in the contemporary United States. These similarities did not go unnoticed by the members of Columbia Prison Divest, a group of activists here at Columbia who succeeded last June in pressuring the university to divest from private prison corporations after a series of well-organized protests, sin-ins, and teach-ins. At the beginning of this short documentary about the movement (link:, activist Asha Rosa explains, “Private prisons and the way that they’re using the incarceration of black and brown bodies as a way to make money, exploit people, and control political power is just a new iteration of a system that has been going on since this land was first colonized.”[8] Private prisons are thus not concerned with administering justice, but rather with making money. Reads a post on the group’s Twitter account, “Profit is one of the motivating forces behind how the state approaches ‘justice.’”[9] Just as de Las Casas concluded that even the economic benefits of slavery could not justify the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the West Indies, Columbia Prison Divest argued effectively for “People over profit.”


Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.41.32 PM

Photo of a Columbia Prison Divest protestor carrying a sign with the slogan, “People over Profit”[10]


Unlike in de Las Casas’s era, today it is taboo to openly profit from racist subjugation. However, the Columbia Prison Divest activists worked to make explicit the continuity of racist oppression from slavery to private prisons and the ways that Columbia has profited from this oppression. Activist Dunni Oduyemi explains that the group put an “Abolish” banner on Columbia’s Thomas Jefferson statue to highlight that “this school is built on stolen land by slaves and Columbia has all these, like, statues memorializing that exact point in history.”[11] Likewise, Columbia Prison Divest drew attention to how Columbia supported the massive police raids in Harlem housing projects last summer, which targeted largely young men of color. In doing so, the university sought to gentrify the neighborhood and expand Columbia into West Harlem.



Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.41.49 PM

Photo of a Columbia Prison Divest protestor, whose sign reads “…because CU is profiting from a racist system”[12]


Much of the power of de Las Casas’s writing came from his ability to humanize the indigenous peoples he wrote about and expose the cruelty of European colonization. Likewise, throughout their campaign Columbia Prison Divest argued powerfully that prisons, not prisoners, are inhumane. Reads a message on their twitter feed, “Prisons are inhumane. Period. Innocence is irrelevant in a syst[em] of racism & punishment as opposed to accountability & care.”[13] By skillfully exposing the ways Columbia profits from systems of cruel and racist oppression, the activists of Columbia Prison Divest were able to succeed in forcing to Columbia to divest ten million dollars of its endowment from private prisons.




CU Prison Divest. Twitter post. April 23, 2015. 11:42 a.m.


CU Prison Divest. Twitter post. April 24, 2015. 12:48 p.m.


De Bry, Theodore. Image 9. “Theodore De Bry’s Illustrations for Bartolome de Las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” Accessed December 5, 2015.


De Las Casas, Bartolomé. Apologetic History of the Indies: Apologetic and Summary History Treating the Qualities, Disposition, Description, Skies and Soil of These Lands; and the Natural Conditions, Governance, Nations, Ways of Life and Customs of the Peoples of These Western and Southern Indies, Whose Sovereign Realm Belongs to the sMonarchs of Castile. In Columbia College, Introduction to Contemporary Civilizations in the West, 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.


Divestment Victory at Columbia University. Directed by Laura Flanders. New York City: The Laura Flanders Show, 2015.


Fox, Danielle. September 26, 2014. Photograph. Columbia Prison Divest Facebook Page. Accessed December 5, 2015.


Fox, Danielle. September 26, 2014. Photograph. Columbia Prison Divest Facebook Page. Accessed December 5, 2015. 2015,


Murphy, Henry. Photograph. Columbia Prison Divest Facebook Page, accessed December 5, 2015,



[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies: Apologetic and Summary History Treating the Qualities, Disposition, Description, Skies and Soil of These Lands; and the Natural Conditions, Governance, Nations, Ways of Life and Customs of the Peoples of These Western and Southern Indies, Whose Sovereign Realm Belongs to the Monarchs of Castile, in Columbia College, Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 1.

[2] De Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 1.

[3] Theodore De Bry, Image 9, “Theodore De Bry’s Illustrations for Bartolome de Las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” accessed December 5, 2015,

[4] De Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 8.

[5] De Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 5.

[6] De Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 5.

[7] De Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 7.

[8] Divestment Victory at Columbia University, directed by Laura Flanders (2015; New York: The Laura Flanders Show). It is also important to note that it is disproportionately black and Latino inmates who are incarcerated at private prisons.

[9] CU Prison Divest, Twitter post, April 23, 2015, 11:42 a.m.,

[10] Danielle Fox, September 26, 2014, photograph, Columbia Prison Divest Facebook Page, accessed December 5, 2015,

[11] Divestment Victory at Columbia University.

[12] Henry Murphy, October 22, 2014, photograph, Columbia Prison Divest Facebook Page, accessed December 5, 2015,

[13] CU Prison Divest, Twitter post, April 24, 2015, 12:48 p.m.,

A School-to-Prison Pipeline in Plato’s Republic?

Plato’s description of his ideal republic appears to stand in stark contrast to what are widely held to be core American values, including social mobility, freedom, and equality. Indeed, Plato imagines a republic rooted in hierarchy and inequality, where people are bred and educated to be members of certain classes and perform specific societal roles. According to Plato, “we aren’t all born alike, but each of us differs somewhat in nature from the others, one being suited to one task, another to another.”[1] Through selective breeding and differentiated education, Plato’s republic cultivates each person to perform his/her predetermined role as a member of a distinct class. Furthermore, using censorship and state lies, the rulers of Plato’s republic make rebellion and revolution impossible. Plato’s “Myth of Metals,” or “one noble falsehood,”[2] functions to make people amenable to the hierarchy of the republic. According to this myth, people are created with either gold, silver, iron, or bronze mixed into their souls, making them rulers, auxiliaries (soldiers), famers, or craftsmen respectively. Thus inequality is both naturalized and valorized. Although Plato’s republic may seem abhorrent to Americans raised on the ethos of the American Dream, it is not impossible to imagine the American Dream as its own kind of “noble falsehood.” While the American Dream leads Americans to believe that through hard work, anyone can achieve success, the reality is often quite different. Indeed, my examination of the school-to-prison pipeline will ask whether the way the American education system funnels certain children into prisons by talking about criminality rather than systemic racism or failing schools is really so alien to Plato’s ideal republic.[3]


This October 26 video linked above from South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School shows a white police officer violently grab an African American student seated at her desk, throw her to the ground, drag her across the floor, and handcuff her. The video immediately went viral; indeed, an important difference between our contemporary world and Plato’s republic is that modern technology would render any attempt at total state censorship impossible. In addition to contributing to current conversations about racialized police violence, this video reignited national discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline. This term describes the phenomenon by which American children are funneled out of school and into the criminal justice system. The American Civil Liberties Union explains this happens because of the underfunding of public schools, the institution of draconian zero-tolerance policies, the elimination of due process for students, and reliance on law enforcement rather than teachers and school administrators to discipline students.[4] According to a 2013 New York Times article, these policies were prompted by an increase in juvenile crime in the 1980s and the Columbine High School shootings in the 1990s.[5] Significantly, however, the school-to-prison pipeline does not impact all American schoolchildren equally. The infographic below illustrates that it is disproportionately students of color – like the girl from the video – who drop out of school, experience expulsion, and find themselves entangled with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.


Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 8.36.05 PM[6]


Indeed, while there is no evidence to suggest that students of color commit more crimes than their white counterparts, no fewer than seventy percent of students arrested in school are black or Latino/a. Not entirely unlike Plato’s education system that grooms people from birth to fulfill predetermined societal roles, it seems clear that America’s current education system sets certain children up to become a criminal underclass. However, by speaking of criminality rather than systemic racism or failing public schools, mainstream discourse about juvenile offenders disguises the operation of the school-to-prison pipeline, justifying inequality like Plato’s “Myth of Metals.”


What can be done to counteract the school-to-prison pipeline? Last October, the radio show This American Life produced an hour-long episode exploring how different schools discipline their students. While the entire episode is worth listening to (link here:, here I will discuss the third segment of the show. “The Talking Cure” chronicles life at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, which serves mostly minority and low-income students. Here teachers and administrators practice restorative justice, talking through conflicts with their students. Recounting her semester spent reporting at Lyons, Joffe-Walt reflects that everything seemed to be going smoothly until a group of students and their teachers ventured outside Lyons for a fieldtrip. While on the subway, a large man bumped into one of the Lyons students, Nelson, who told the man, “Say excuse me.”[7] The man replied, “Fuck you,” to which Nelson answered, “Fuck you too.”[8] Other students jumped to Nelson’s defense and the conflict became physical, escalating until the man pulled out a police badge and identified himself as a plainclothes officer. Although the Lyons teachers tried to negotiate with the officer, he arrested Nelson and another boy. Each sixteen years old, the pair spent the night in jail. The incident forced Lyons to reconsider the utility of their program of restorative justice. Some administrators were angry. Dean Dan Espinoza (Espy) “imagined Nelson getting his prints taken, standing before a judge, seeing himself as a criminal. And Espy played out the alternative future he could now see for Nelson… seeing a path laid out for him, seeing him targeted by strangers who don’t see him for who he is. It made Espy furious.”[9] Meanwhile, teacher Cindy Black expresses her contrasting opinion: “We’ve let him [Nelson] get away with too much… We should have been more black and white… And so it’s our fault he’s done something now. He spent the night in jail. It’s because of us. It’s because of me.”[10] Recalling watching the incident unfold, a third teacher, Jesse, explains, “I immediately got the sense that seeing their friends in handcuffs was nothing new to them at all. And that’s a really scary thought. And it’s something that I know, but to see it in that moment where it’s so clear no one is shocked.”[11] Ultimately, Joffe-Walt concludes, “I heard this from a lot of kids, the feeling that your funky little system is cool when we’re in school and all, but don’t take it and apply it to our world. You’re in over your head. If talking in circles are not the way the world does things, then Lyons is failing to prepare kids for the world they live in.”[12]


Indeed, it appears there are no easy solutions. Although the American education and criminal justice systems may not be as impenetrable as the mechanism of state control outlined in Plato’s Republic, it is still difficult to figure out how best to divert at-risk students from the school-to-prison pipeline. Combatting systemic racism is no simple task, particularly because this racism is cloaked in myths about certain students’ criminality. Furthermore, while Plato’s ideal republic had rid itself of criminals, this is not the case in the contemporary United States. It’s a reality that’s decidedly not ideal.




American Civil Liberties Union. “What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” Accessed November 9 2015.


Amurao, Carla. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Tavis Smiley Report. Accessed November 9, 2015.


“Is This Working?” This American Life. October 17, 2014. Accessed November 9, 2015.


Plato. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.


Seabrooks, Reginald. “Police Officer Grabs High School Student.” New York Times. October 27, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2015.

“The School-to-Prison Pipeline.” New York Times. May 29, 2013. Accessed November 9, 2015.


[1] Plato, Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 45.

[2] Plato, Republic, 91.

[3] Reginald Seabrooks, “Police Officer Grabs High School Student,” New York Times, October 27, 2015, accessed November 9, 2015,

[4] “What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed November 9, 2015,

[5] “The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” New York Times, May 29, 2013, accessed November 9, 2015,

[6] Carla Amurao, “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Tavis Smiley Reports, accessed November 9, 2015,

[7] “Is This Working?” This American Life, October 17, 2014, accessed November 9, 2015,

[8] “Is This Working?”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.


As a student in Contemporary Civilizations (CC), it can be difficult to understand the relevance of a curriculum centered on ancient Greek philosophy, selections from the Bible, and early Christian and Muslim theology. Thus for my final project, I have chosen to keep a blog using a series of texts studied in the first semester of CC to examine the modern American prison system. Since every society must decide how to handle deviance and crime, this topic seemed an appropriate match for a curriculum centered largely on political philosophy. Indeed, I anticipate these CC texts will prove useful for explicating different facets of the American prison system. Perhaps more importantly, by centering my blog posts on the very current and relevant issue of mass incarceration in the United States, I hope to make clear how the CC texts I discuss hold relevance outside of a Columbia classroom. In an additional effort to make this project accessible beyond academia, I will not structure my blog posts as academic essays, but will instead combine text with videos, photos, podcasts, and links to current news articles. My blog will include an examination of the school-to-prison pipeline through the lens of Plato’s Republic, a comparison between Bartolomé de Las Casas’s indictment of enslavement and the Columbia Prison Divest movement, and a post looking at the gospel of Matthew to understand the appeal of Christianity among many prisoners. Furthermore, I will have a post considering suicide in prison through the lens of St. Augustine’s City of God and a comparison of prisoners’ coping mechanisms and the writings of the stoics. Stay tuned!

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