New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC and Criminal Legal System

Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas
By Dr. Michelle VanNatta

As we kick off 2015, we are making this guide available as a PDF at no cost. You can complete the following survey to receive the link for downloading the guide for free.

Project NIA is a small grassroots organization with limited resources. We rely on individual donors to do our work. If you would like to make a donation for using the guide, we would appreciate it. You can send a check to us, Project NIA/CFS, 1527 West Morse Ave, Chicago, IL 60626.

This curriculum offers ideas for exercises that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

All of these exercises can be used with adults and youth in different settings, usually requiring little equipment or technology. Each begins with information about the recommended number of participants, materials and technology needed, set-up, and structure for the exercise. Facilitators can modify each exercise based on their own understanding of the backgrounds, knowledge, needs, and perspectives of their participants. While one exercise may be too basic for one group, another group using the same exercise may require background information or analysis about relevant issues.

The curriculum is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

Complete THIS SURVEY to download a copy of the guide.

We are indebted to our friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta for generously sharing her time and resources to write this guide. We also thank you friend Jacqui Shine for designing the guide.

Table of Contents:


I.                   Introduction

II.                Exercises

  1. Create a Law

This exercise helps participants think about the limits of using criminal law to address social problems. Participants will discuss how the creation of new criminal statutes can place an undue burden on particular communities

  1. Foundations for Understanding Race and Racism: Online exercises and readings

This internet-based exercise explores the basics of race and racism, using the Public Broadcasting Service’s website:  Race: the Power of an Illusion and other sources. This is for participants to do individually, with internet access, to provide a foundation for better understanding the social construction of race. This could be used as a preparation assignment before a workshop or meeting, or could be used as part of an online education module.

  1. Racially based jury nullification debate

This debate is based on published articles, and creates critical dialogue about the use of nullification to address racist bias in the criminal legal system

  1. Alternatives to state intervention exercise

This group exercise helps participants brainstorm strategies other than use of police, mental health institutions, and child protection to deal with issues in the community including a neighbor with psychosis, a neglected child, youth conflict, and break-ins. This activity also gives participants the opportunity to discuss micro, meso, and macro levels of intervention, and to discuss the underlying causes of child neglect, mental health crisis, youth conflict, and burglary.

  1. Behavior Change exercise

What makes people change their behavior? This talking circle asks participants to consider how and why they and others in their lives have made positive changes in behavior (e.g. overcoming a bad habit or learning and using a new skill). This encourages people to consider whether the punishment industry is actually useful for creating positive change. In this exercise, depending on peoples’ experiences, participants may recognize the value of community, relationships, positive role models, skill-building, creativity, healing opportunities, and support for building better lives.

  1. Strategies for addressing direct violence circle discussion

This talking circle creates dialogue among participants about how individuals can intervene in several forms of violence, including intimate partner violence, police brutality, potential child sexual abuse, and racist violence from a neighbor. The conversation can create an opportunity to consider realistic scenarios and discuss, role-play, troubleshoot, and practice how to organize collectively and how to support survivors.

  1. Immigration issues discussion circle: Focus on the US/Mexico border

This talking circle begins with sharing many short articles that break down myths about the border and about immigration from Mexico, portraying different viewpoints and creating dialogue among participants

  1. Prison conditions exercise

Using a report from the John Howard Association to give participants information about the overcrowded Vienna Correctional Facility, this activity provides a forum to discuss the realities, the causes and the consequences of overcrowding and other harmful prison conditions.

  1. Drug policy exercise

Using a published policy analysis framework developed by Karger and Stoesz, participants consider the complexity of drug policy.

  1. Prison reform exercise

In this small group discussion exercise, participants take on the roles of different groups (prisoners, families of prisoners, guards, etc.) and are tasked with addressing issues in a prison (e.g. abuse by guards, lack of adequate food). The activity should help participants think about the different stakeholders that play a role in prison conditions, discuss mobilizing and organizing collaborations between people inside and outside, and discuss how or whether reform efforts have any role in the abolition movement.

  1. Introduction to Police Brutality and the Need for Alternatives to the Police State

This exercise uses Project Nia’s Chain Reaction website and two short articles to introduce participants to the problem of police brutality, with a focus on contemporary Chicago. As presented, this exercise is set up for participants to use individually with internet access, responding in writing to what they hear, see, and read. It can be adapted for discussion and group use. It may be used as a background assignment before a workshop or as part of an online program.

  1. Elderly Prisoners: The Obvious and Inhumane Consequences of Long Sentences

This simple resource includes links to two short documentary videos, a significant report on elderly prisoners, and review and discussion questions.

  1. Critical observation exercise – developed by David Stevens and Michelle VanNatta, published in an article in Teaching Sociology

This exercise builds skills in interpreting complex behavior and interactions in the real world. The activity encourages participants to consider how media, biases, and stereotypes shape how we make meaning of what we see and hear in everyday life. The exercise uses a skit and discussion to illustrate how we may misunderstand our everyday observations when we are unaware of the structural factors shaping behavior. The activity includes strategies to encourage participants to recognize the limits of what they know and possibilities for multiple interpretations of what they see, encouraging them to interrogate their own assumptions

 III.             Suggested Online Resources

1.      Curricula, Exercises, Simulations, and Toolkits

2.      Websites

3.      Documentary Films

IV.             Appendix


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