Class Name: “Break Every Yoke: Incarceration, Abolition, and Social Justice”
Taught By: Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Richard Kent Evans
“Break Every Yoke” is about the connection between religion and prisons. But we haven’t always confined people in cages as punishment. The prison is, relatively speaking, a modern invention, and there’s no reason to believe that it will be around forever. The modern penitentiary was designed right here in Philadelphia, mostly by Quakers, during the Early Republican period. The men who invented our modern idea of the prison were convinced that they were on the right side of history. They thought that prison sentences could replace corporal systems of punishment, would provide the offender with the chance to reflect on, and atone for, their crimes, and would offer society a model of justice that was more just and humane than the criminal justice system of their day provided.Today people from across the political spectrum acknowledge that their experiment has gotten out of control. The United States has the largest rate of incarceration in the world. There are over 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Students in this class are thinking through the complex relationship between religion and prisons. Though religion provided many of the ideas that created our carceral state, religion also animates the movements that are looking to create a world beyond prisons as punishment.
This course, like all religion courses at Haverford, is based around immersive student learning, deep and critical reading of complicated and important texts, and real-world connections. We’re reading together some deeply important, really cool, mind-bending scholarship from across the humanities. Students in the course are pen pals to people who are incarcerated, so we’re learning from people who are currently behind bars alongside the work of scholars and activists. We’ll have the chance to meet and learn from the several abolitionist activists and leaders who are visiting campus this semester. And through our Decarcerate Haverford Project, we’re building institutional momentum behind a movement that many of us would consider one of the most pressing and urgent social issues of our time. To me, classes like this are exactly what Haverford is all about: students and faculty thinking together, building together, and making plans to change the world.
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