Fall 2011

Literary and Historical Perspectives on the Criminal Justice System

Listed in: English, as ENGL-398


Barry O'Connell (Section 01)


This course  looks at our penal system and places it in the context of the economic and political development of the U.S.  It begins with the introduction of the penitentiary in the antebellum period at a time of extraordinary economic expansion and optimism about social institutions. After the Civil War ideas of criminal control change as rapid industrialization in the North and large waves of immigration produce labor unrest and unprecedented urban poverty. The course also explores the convict-lease system in the post-emancipation “New South.”  It looks, too, at Progressives’ creation of the juvenile justice system at the turn of the century as well as ideas linking criminality with heredity. It ends with the current boom in prison populations. Throughout it closely attends prisoners’ accounts of their experiences and how they represent them in diverse literary forms.

The course will be conducted inside a correctional facility and enroll an equal number of Amherst students and residents of the facility. Permission to enroll will be granted on the basis of a questionnaire and personal interview with the instructor.  Amherst students studying the philosophical and material development of the penal system in the company of incarcerated men will get the benefit of their fellow students’ personal experience of that system.  This setting creates a pedagogical opportunity to bring together genuinely diverse perspectives. One class meeting per week.

Admission with consent of the instructor.  Limited to 12 students.  Fall semester. Professor O’Connell.

If Overenrolled: Because Amherst students are admitted after an interview, there is no problem with over-enrollment. A waiting list is also used.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011