Columbia Courses Related to Mass Incarceration

Across Columbia's campus, students can find a wide range of courses related to the subject of mass incarceration. This list aims to keep Columbia students informed of opportunities to learn more about the subject through university curriculum.

Spring 2018

This lecture course, accompanied by its weekly recitation section, will introduce students to the field of justice. It will combine an intellectual history of conceptions of justice and modes of political change with an exploration of the main areas of public interest and advocacy. The course is intended to serve as a bridge from the Columbia Core to present issues of social justice. Throughout, the discussion will center on how we—contemporary public citizens—can improve our social and political condition and achieve justice. 

The course will integrate four principal dimensions. First, it will explore how conceptions of justice have changed over the course of the past three millennia and will ask which conceptions of justice make more sense in our present political condition. From ancient ideas of substantive justice and natural law to more modern liberal ideas of legalism and the rule of law, the course will outline, compare, and interrogate different ways of thinking about a just society. Second, the course will investigate different modes of political action and how they too have changed over the course of history. It will explore earlier forms of political contestation and ask what political action looks like today. How, for instance, might impact litigation compare with civil disobedience or other forms of contemporary disobedience, such as Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, or hacktivism? Third, the course will offer an overview of several major areas of public interest advocacy and public service today—from criminal justice reform, to voting rights, struggles for racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual equality, immigration reform, environmental justice, and international human rights. Fourth, the course will interrogate different kinds of political action and explore what type of political interventions seem most suited to our current political condition. It will ask, for instance, how best to address issues of mass incarceration, climate change, racial and gender inequality, or immigration discrimination.

The course will explore what it means to pursue the public interest and to become a public citizen today, informed by the long tradition of writings on justice and social change. How do we pursue justice in our time? How can history and social theory inform our current political practices? In sum, what is to be done in the face of political oppression or injustice? How do we build more just societies? 

Last Instructor / Semester
Bernard Harcourt / Spring 2018

This seminar will explore some of the most important ways in which law and the legal system transformed American society– the shift from status to contract and the role of law in shaping the economy. We will look at the legal status of slaves and the status of freed people after emancipation, the status of women, both married and single, how family and marriage law evolved to encompass marriage equality, and the status of criminals and prisoners, when guilt replaced shame as a legal concept and the penitentiary replaced the stocks, and how the concept of privacy became enshrined in law. We will also look at the role of law in releasing creative energy into the economy and how law transformed the economy in the 19th century and conversely how the explosive growth of the American economy disrupted and transformed American law. Readings will include secondary works as well as primary sources and legal cases.  

Last Instructor / Semester
Michael Hindus / Spring 2018

This course focuses on the structures and processes that led the U.S. to build the largest carceral regime on the planet in the post-1970s United States. Through readings, lectures, and original research, students will develop analyses of how this growth coincided with a shift in the racial composition of prisons from majority white to almost seventy percent people of color. Students will develop a number of concepts such as race, class, gender, neoliberalism, abolition, policing, and surveillance that are foundational for analyzing the formation of the carceral state. 

Last Instructor / Semester
Jordan Camp / Spring 2018

This course will examine the historical development of crime and the criminal justice system in the United States since the Civil War. The course will give particular focus to the interactions between conceptions of crime, normalcy and deviance, and the broader social and political context of policy making.

Last Instructor / Semester
Matthew Vaz / Spring 2018

This graduate seminar mixes sociological and historical accounts in order to explore the social determinants and consequences of the U.S. criminal justice system. The class casts a wide net — exploring classical texts as well as contemporary scholarship from a range of sociological traditions.

We begin by discussing classical texts in order to understand the theoretical traditions that underlie the most interesting contemporary work on the sociology of punishment. Building on the work of Marxist criminologists like Rusche and Kirchheimer, we explore the relationship between the U.S. criminal justice system and the market. To what extent can we understand the penal field as autonomous from economic relationships? To what extent do economic forces or logics determine criminological thinking and practice? Building on Durkheim, we explore how punishment is both reflective of social values and constitutive of social solidarity, and investigate the symbolic consequences (intended and unintended) of contemporary punishment regimes. Building on readings from Foucault, we explore punishment and its relationship to the emergence of new forms of bureaucratic and disciplinary power. Finally, with Goffman, we explore the interactive context of the prison as relatively autonomous from the external forces that bring it into being. With the classical theorists behind us, we turn to a history of the present. What is the age at which we are living today? What are the economic, political, and symbolic causes and consequences of mass incarceration? To what extent can we understand mass incarceration, and more recent reform efforts, as reflective or constitutive of new forms of power in contemporary society? Finally, we conclude by asking what the future might hold. After four decades of explosive growth, the U.S. incarceration rate has been declining slowly for the last several years. Crime rates have declined steadily for the last quarter century. At the same time, Black Lives Matter has put renewed focus on the ways in which the state continues to exert violence in poor communities of color. How should we understand the current period of reform? What are its social and political possibilities and limitations? What would a just justice system even entail?

Last Instructor / Semester
Adam Reich / Spring 2018

Fall 2017

In its everyday use, the term “trial” denotes a formal examination of evidence by a judicial tribunal in order to determine the guilt or innocence of the persons accused of a certain act. Yet trials can also stage confrontations of much wider breadth and higher stakes. Ruling powers of various shapes and sizes tend to prosecute those people whom they fear because of their identity, class, craft, or convictions. In such cases, what is often “on trial” is not just one (or more) individual persons, but a set of relationship that these ruling powers see as anathema to the social order they seek to establish or maintain, and on which their power depends. Witches, officers of toppled political orders, those accused of conspiracy (rebels, traitors, terrorists, and dissidents), gangsters and mafiosi, or corrupt officers and magnates – all share that role in social dramas that cast them as enemies of The State, The Church, The People, or Humanity. 

We will examine how such trials give us unique opportunities to examine what conceptions of society, of relationships good and evil, and of justice underlie political orders, how they codify and pursue them, and what historical processes these enactments trigger or shape. After an introductory session, we will dedicate two to three weeks on each of these categories. Our goal will be to develop tools for understanding the relationship between the micro-dynamics of trials and the changes that unfold before these events, through them, and in their aftermath.

Last Instructor / Semester
Naor Ben-Yehoyada / Fall 2017

Spring 2016

Last Instructor / Semester
Ramond Smith / Spring 2016

This course will examine the influence of race and poverty in the American system of confronting the challenge of crime.  Students will explore some history, including the various purposes of having an organized criminal justice system within a community; the principles behind the manner in which crimes are defined; and the utility of punishment.  Our focus will be on the social, political and economic effects of the administration of our criminal justice system, with emphatic examination of the role of conscious and unconscious racism, as well as community biases against the poor.  Students will examine the larger implications for a community and culture that are presented by these pernicious features.  We will reflect on the fairness of our past and present American system of confronting crime, and consider the possibilities of future reform.  Readings will include historical texts, analytical reports, some biography, and a few legal materials.  We will also watch documentary films which illuminate the issues and problems. To apply: Attend first class for instructor permission.

Last Instructor / Semester
Cathleen Price / Spring 2016

One of multiple courses offered on the subject of "Topics in the Black Experience," R.L. Lewis McCoy's course focuses on the intersection of race, schools, and policy.

Last Instructor / Semester
R.L. Lewis-McCoy / Spring 2016

Fall 2015

This course will take a transnational look at the strange ways that race and mass rumors have interacted. From the judicial and popular riots in the U.S. justified by recurrent rumors of African-American insurrection, to accusations that French Jews were players in the 'white slave trade,' to tales of white fat-stealing monsters among indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru, rumors play a key role in constructing, enforcing, and contesting regimes of racial identity and domination. In order to grasp rumor's importance for race, we will need to understand how it works, so our readings will cover both instances of racialized rumor-telling, conspiracy theories and mass panics, and some key approaches to how rumors work as a social phenomenon.

Last Instructor / Semester
Stuart Rockefeller / Fall 2017


This course will examine the social and economic dynamics of crime in the United States during the 20th century. It will also explore politics and public policy related to policing and the courts, and it will situate the history of crime and policing within public discourses related to race, ethnicity, class, rights, and justice.

Last Instructor / Semester
Matthew Vaz / Fall 2015

Brendan O’Flaherty brings the tools of economic analysis—incentives, equilibrium, optimization, and more—to bear on contentious issues of race in the United States. In areas ranging from quality of health care and education, to employment opportunities and housing, to levels of wealth and crime, he shows how racial differences among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asian Americans remain a powerful determinant in the lives of twenty-first-century Americans. More capacious than standard texts, The Economics of Race in the United States discusses important aspects of history and culture and explores race as a social and biological construct to make a compelling argument for why race must play a major role in economic and public policy. People are not color-blind, and so policies cannot be color-blind either.

Because his book addresses many topics, not just a single area such as labor or housing, surprising threads of connection emerge in the course of O’Flaherty’s analysis. For example, eliminating discrimination in the workplace will not equalize earnings as long as educational achievement varies by race—and educational achievement will vary by race as long as housing and marriage markets vary by race. No single engine of racial equality in one area of social and economic life is strong enough to pull the entire train by itself. Progress in one place is often constrained by diminishing marginal returns in another. Good policies can make a difference, and only careful analysis can figure out which policies those are.

Last Instructor / Semester
Brendan O'Flaherty / Fall 2015

Last Instructor / Semester
Brian Goldstone / Fall 2015

Does race appear in American life in the ways we make, distribute, and consume goods?  If so, how? Through film, literary criticism, history, ethnography and philosophy, this course will examine how race manifests as an economic relationship. We will focus on the legacies of chattel slavery, the interconnections of race and property, and ongoing struggles for racial justice. The course is grounded in what Cedric Robinson has referred to as the “Black radical tradition”: a centuries-long intellectual and political tradition oriented towards contesting the definition of a specific group of people (Black people) as property. We will examine ways that this central economic claim, which underpinned the chattel slavery system, continues to appear in our own society, in prisons, international migration system, residential segregation, underemployment, and other ways.

Last Instructor / Semester
Manu Vimalassery / Fall 2017