Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

A new book edited by a University of Colorado Denver professor using poetry, art and essays to investigate the impact of prisons on American society, has won a major award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex,” edited by Stephen John Hartnett, associate professor and chairman of the CU Denver Dept. of Communication, won a 2010 PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award for illuminating the lives of people in prison, analyzing the root causes of crime and finding ways to protect youth from ending up behind bars.

The PASS Awards, announced on Monday, are the only national honor that singles out media, film and literature for their efforts to focus on the criminal justice system in a thoughtful, considerate manner. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which presents the awards, selects those whose work best highlights prison reform, juvenile justice and child welfare issues.

“We believe that the prison-industrial complex has changed the very texture of our nation,” said Hartnett. “This book arose out of a conference where we diagnosed the problem and then said, `Now let’s fix it.’

The nearly 300-page volume includes chapters from academics and activists discussing novel ways to address the situation using, among other things, community theater, the arts and fostering a culture of achievement in schools to end the `schools-to-prison pipeline.’

Hartnett has been working in prisons for 21 years. He teaches writing and literature courses at Denver jails and runs a course where his students work with male and female inmates. Every few months, he publishes `Captured Words/Free Thoughts,’ which includes the most notable examples of prisoner literature.

The new book, published in January, not only offers practical solutions to the problems of prison and society but includes poems, essays and artwork by inmates.

For example, a prisoner at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility wrote that her husband’s suicide caused her heart to “shatter like a glass being thrown against the wall in a fit of anger.”

“A young man of only twenty-nine is gone forever. A mother and a father have lost their only child, their only son,” she wrote. “Three little girls have lost their beloved daddy; a little boy will never get to play ball with his father. And I have lost my best friend, my soul mate, my husband.”

Hartnett said he became involved in prison education as a way of giving back. Raised in a family of social activists, he was drawn to the complex, often conflicted lives led by those behind prison walls. As a professor he has found them to be wonderful students.

“They are extremely grateful for the chance to learn. They want to fix what is broken in their lives. For my students who go into the prisons, it has turned into an intensely rewarding experience,” he said. “All the data shows that educating prisoners reduces the rate of recidivism. As citizens and taxpayers we should support any effort to expand the gift of education especially if it reduces crime and alleviates the crushing burden of the prison-industrial complex on society.”

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