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Mace and Crown | May 22, 2018

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Humanities Behind Bars: Professor Takes on Prison Industrial Complex

Hannah Kristan | Contributing Writer

For most Americans, the prison system exists on an “out of sight, out of mind” basis. The reality is, however, that nearly 2.5 million Americans within the U.S., most of which are people of color, are currently incarcerated. Of those serving time in prison, less than 10 percent are guilty of violent crimes.

Additionally, the criminal justice system itself is often biased and thoroughly racialized, leading many citizens down the path to incarceration long before they’re actually sentenced.

What, then, is anyone doing about the issue of mass incarceration?

ODU professor Alison Reed, Ph.D., is working to fundamentally change our system of crime and punishment teaching that incarcerated people are worthy of care, not just criminalization. She is accomplishing this with her grassroots collective organization, Humanities Behind Bars.

The issue of mass incarceration within the U.S. is huge, though convenient to ignore for most members of society. Reed argues, however, that mass incarceration is everybody’s issue.

“I think that the logics of crime and punishment that justify and normalize routine state violence are so deeply embedded in our society that we actually don’t even notice that violence unless we’re directly impacted by it.”

Reed focuses her attention on the prison industrial complex, which is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry within the criminal justice system.

“Because of how much our economy is built around incarceration, surveillance and policing, we need to understand the way this impacts our daily lives and our perception of what ‘criminality’ even is, and how that perception shapes popular opinion and public policy. Movements for social change today must account for how devastating policing and imprisonment are on our collective imagination of justice.”

Reed founded Humanities Behind Bars in 2015 with a colleague at the time, Meghan McDowell, Ph.D. The two bonded over their abolitionist ideals and prior community organizing efforts, and decided that they wanted to do a project together. The two realized their mutual passion for dismantling the prison-industrial complex, and thus Humanities Behind Bars was born.

With the help of Tammy Lindquist, the program director at the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office, the two began teaching literature classes to inmates within the Norfolk City Jail. Their first project was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The book choice was deliberate, according to Reed.

“We chose The Hunger Games because it served as a great Trojan Horse to discuss power at the jail. We could use the ironic term ‘Peacekeepers,’ to talk about police.”

The necessity for programs like Humanities Behind Bars is huge, even if the issue of incarceration is hidden from the daily lives of most Americans. Though many organizations work to teach and rehabilitate incarcerated people, some neglect the actual needs, analysis and desires of the inmates.

Given the proper material, however, Reed believes teachers can learn just as much from the inmates as the inmates do from the curriculum. She focuses on creating a program that can have a lasting impact on the inmate’s lives.

“Our prison education program is committed to an abolitionist vision, which translates in daily practice to being about understanding that incarcerated people have the best ideas for a society that is rooted in economies of care, as opposed to economies of violence, exploitation and suffering.”

“The system of incarceration is fundamentally unjust,” Reed said. “We’re working to create an understanding people in prison may be incarcerated for just being human, having a certain skin color, or coping with an addiction.”

Reed focuses much of her efforts toward teaching about racial disparities within the criminal justice system, including sentencing disparities and perceptions of criminality.

“We know that often white people with addiction receive care, but when people of color have an addiction, it’s criminalized.”

Reed works to build an understanding among the public that the kinds of systems of care that are in place are racialized.

In addition to community members, ODU staff, faculty, and graduate students in the English and Criminal Justice departments are involved with Humanities Behind Bars, and teach classes at Norfolk City Jail. Reed also has the help of Student Justice Coordinator Danielle Goldstein who assists with student outreach.

At the heart of the program is centering the ideas and needs of the inmates in crafting the courses and curriculum. “When we’re lucky,” Reed said, “our students held in the jail are released, and we get to carry those relationships into the outside world.”

As a result, Reed also directs Humanity Without Bars, which provides talks, movie screenings and book discussions about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex with formerly incarcerated activists and artists, such as Kendrick McCray and Derek James.

All members of the community are invited to attend Humanity Without Bars events, including undergraduate students. You can be added to the mailing list that provides event details by visiting

In an attempt to increase university involvement, this semester, Humanities Behind Bars hosted a book drive with Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society for Norfolk City Jail. Additionally, Reed also frequently delivers talks on campus and in the community about the prison industrial complex and her organization, which all ODU students are invited to attend.

Reed will also be starting a pen-pal program between participants and Norfolk City Jail Inmates next semester, and is avidly seeking undergraduate participation.

At the end of the semester, the organization will be hosting a fundraising event, where anyone interested can come and socialize with members of the organization and listen to poetry from guest artist Matthew Wallenstein’s new collection, Tiny Alms, as well as music and creative writing by Humanities Behind Bars members.

Students looking to get involved should visit the organization website, or email Dr. Alison Reed at to find out more.