5Cs to debut new criminal justice education program in the spring

A line of blue silhouettes stand behind a barbed wire fence.
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

With help from a million-dollar grant, the 5Cs are introducing a new criminal justice education program next semester, which hopes to bring together students from across classes, schools and disciplines.

One faculty member from each of the 5Cs will teach a course addressing the U.S. criminal justice system as part of a “learning community,” according to Darryl Yong, faculty liaison for the program and Harvey Mudd College mathematics professor.

Derik Smith, a Claremont McKenna College professor of literature who will be teaching a class in the program, described it as “an opportunity to unveil the truths which are so often hidden from our eyes.”

Priority will be given to first- and second-year students “because the whole point is to create a cohort of students who will take courses together, be interested in working on issues together, and receive advising from the five faculty who are teaching these courses,” Yong said.

The learning community is the first program in a new Justice Education Initiative at the Claremont Colleges supported by a $1.1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, according to Yong.

The initiative aims to “confront mass incarceration as a defining social problem of the contemporary era,” and will coordinate programming across the 5Cs, at regional prisons and detention centers and with local community partners, according to a flyer on the subject

The five classes in the program are “American Prison Texts” at CMC, “Race, Gender and Mass Incarceration” at HMC, “Gender, Crime and Punishment” at Pomona College, “Criminalization of Latinos and Resistance” at Pitzer College and “Ending Mass Incarceration” at Scripps College.

All courses require instructor permission to enroll, according to the course registration portal. They have a total of 78 seats available. Each class comes from a different department — literature; humanities, social sciences and the arts; philosophy; and political studies and politics, respectively.

Four of the five courses meet at the same time and day, providing the opportunity for cross-course collaboration, Yong said.

The grant, which will also fund speakers and events, expires in June 2023, Yong said.

In “Gender, Crime and Punishment,” students will examine the prison experience for women specifically and visit and work on writing activities with inmates at a local women’s prison six times during the semester, professor Susan Castagnetto said. 

She said five of her course’s students will come from Pilgrim Place — a senior retirement community in Claremont committed to peace and social justice, according to its website.

Smith’s course will focus on the cultural representation of prisons, including analyzing Hollywood films, independent documentaries, poetry and music. 

Two of the other professors in the learning community declined to comment, and the final one was not available for comment.

Yong said the grant streamlines and consolidates previous efforts to connect the Claremont Colleges with local detention facilities. He also specified that the learning community is not necessarily a prison abolitionist group. 

While Yong hopes to see collaboration between the cohort and the 5C Prison Abolition Collective, “we have avoided going down one specific ideological path,” Yong said. Regardless, he thinks the learning community will offer a space where its participants can respectfully discuss difficult conversations and ideas together.

Smith echoed this intent. 

“The challenge is always how to present this kind of material in a way that is respectful and honors people who are enduring the justice system … and doing that in a way that calls people into the discourse rather than creates antagonism,” he said.

The 5C Prison Abolition Collective was not immediately available for comment. 

The 5Cs currently offer Inside Out courses, in which students learn alongside inmates at two California prisons. This justice education initiative plans to expand the Inside Out programming and offer more courses at other detention facilities, according to the flyer.

On a personal level, Yong hopes more students at the 5Cs “become more aware of the ways in which we benefit from and are complicit in the criminal justice system.” 

“These are huge issues that touch a lot of people, and affect disproportionately poor people and people of color,” he said. “We definitely need to think about how the criminal justice system is keeping us from creating a more just world.”

This article was last updated Nov. 21 at 1:42 p.m. 

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