Hip Hop and the Prison Industrial Complex

In finishing up my posts this month in connection with the corporatization of the prison industry in the United States, I wanted to take a moment to think about how our students are witnessing, feeling and experiencing mass incarceration.  Many law students today would identify as members of the “hip hop generation.”  Indeed, some of us teaching in the legal academy likely consider ourselves members of this generation as well.  What does the hip hop generation say or think about the prison industrial complex?  As it turns out, this generation thinks radically about ending mass incarceration.  This anecdotal comment is based on experiences this semester with a group of 60 students that are enrolled in a law school course styled “Hip Hop and the American Constitution.”  Hip Hop and the American Constitution is being offered as a companion course at both Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law and the West Virginia University College of Law.

Dr. Donald Tibbs at Drexel Law originally conceptualized a “Hip Hop and the Law” course and successfully petitioned Drexel for a grant to organize and conduct the course as a lecture series.  Together with Dr. Tibbs, a proposal was then introduced to the academic planning committee at the West Virginia University College of Law to approve a companion course at WVU Law, to be offered collaboratively between Drexel Law and WVU Law.  The result has been a law school course that includes 60 students from both schools  engaged in an incredibly intellectual mining of topics like mass incarceration, police brutality, anti-snitching, the black public sphere, electoral politics, the prison industrial complex, and hip hop feminism, all through the lens of the U.S. Constitution as critiqued by hip hop and its artists, past and present.  With an emerging body of scholarship that examines the intersection of law and hip hop, the course has allowed students a rich material to read from in advance of lectures and discussion.

What has seemed most urgent for the students that self-selected into this course, has been the utter failure of the War on Drugs and the massive imprisonment scheme that literally overwhelms communities of color and impacts these students personally, through individual experience or familial affiliation.  This of course, should not come as a surprise (the intense personal experience so many have with mass incarceration).  With the prison population increasing more than 335% over the past twenty-five years, more of our students are going to be personally or tangentially affected by this increase.  From these discussions, student groups have been formed to lobby against new prison construction in West Virginia and creative solutions are being sought to prison overcrowding in both WV and Pennsylvania.

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1 Response

  1. Frank says:

    Sounds fascinating. I have been reading Paul Butler’s book recently and find it a very powerful perspective.

    I also found this recent Wacquant piece illuminating:


    “[H]ad the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately by policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counteraction.

    ““Mass” incarceration is socially tolerable and therefore workable as public policy only so long as it does not reach the masses: it is a figure of speech, which hides the multiple filters that operate to point the penal dagger. . . inmates are first and foremost poor people.”

    This is one of many reasons it is so troubling that massive financial fraud has not been prosecuted in this country. It essentially sets up a rule of law that only applies to the un-connected, the poor, the marginal. Society’s winners reach the “theft inflection point:”