“But they’re criminals. We should lock them up and throw away the key!” my student, using a tired refrain, declared. She soon had a classroom of her peers— thoughtful, engaged students who often enjoyed analyzing complicated and difficult social issues—nodding in support. Thus began my entry into teaching and discussing the prison industrial complex (PIC) and abolitionism in a college classroom. Luckily, the class moved beyond this knee-jerk reaction, but I learned a valuable lesson that day. While I regularly engage students in thinking critically about poverty, social justice, race relations, feminism, and inclusion, exploring the possibilities of abolishing a system of criminalization and imprisonment that seemed so natural and commonplace to them was going to be a new challenge. To that end, this essay will explore my experiences teaching the PIC in two differently situated classes in order to address what worked well and what did not. As a historian who teaches in women, gender, and sexuality studies, my two very different experiences were driven in large part by how I organized and structured the students’ entrance to and evaluation of this topic. Since I experienced some real success when I taught the PIC the second time around (but not the first), the essay includes some “best practices” to consider when approaching this topic with students who are, at best, uninformed and, at worst, completely resistant to the idea of even recognizing the PIC, much less considering its abolishment.

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2010

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 2010 University of Illinois Press. This article first appeared in Radical Teacher 88, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 32-42. doi:10.1353/rdt.2010.0000.

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