Medium | Teaching histories of race and incarceration in the prison capital of the world

March 14, 2016
/ /
in News

Benjamin D. Weber is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University and adjunct professor of history at the University of New Orleans, where faculty are represented by the AFT’s United Federation of College Teachers. He is working on a study of domestic and overseas U.S. prisons entitled America’s Carceral Empire: Confinement, Punishment, and Work at Home and Abroad. You can contact him at

The following is an excerpt from Weber’s Medium article, found in full here:

Alongside those who know

Collaboration can be challenging, and academia tends to encourage us to go it alone. Teaching the history of policing and prisons last fall, however, reminded me very tangibly of something I have believed for a long time:

People most directly affected by an issue have the greatest insight into it.

Through the postcard exchange with prisoners, students got the chance to relate to their family members. I was struck by how some prisoners described a person they wanted us to go and meet, in the section of the form that asked where they would like the commemoration to take place. These interactions proved to be most meaningful. It showed how in spite of their incarceration, some prisoners sought to improve the design of our project. Although we set out to commemorate prisoners’ deceased loved ones, their living loved ones began showing up more and more. At an event to exhibit the postcards and gather community feedback on students’ project drafts, for instance, a death-row prisoner called his fiancé who was in attendance, and we were able to put him on the microphone so he could speak to everyone.

Mac Phipps, portrait by his mother, Sheila Phipps, 2010, photo courtesy of the artist


Sheila Phipps, local artist and mother of incarcerated rapper Mac Phipps, also came to the event. By the time it was over, she had agreed to contribute her portraits of incarcerated and exonerated men and to advise my class on its submission to the national traveling exhibit, “States of Incarceration,” being coordinated by the New School’s Humanities Action Lab in New York City.


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