About this Course
There are three orienting facts that render mass incarceration in the United States an ethical problem worthy of our deep consideration. First, the rate of incarceration has grown dramatically over the last 40 years so that today there are 2.2 million people in prison or jail, and another 5 million on probation or parole. This means that 1/32 adults in the USA are under state supervision. Second, the application of incarceration is disproportionately applied to the poor, people of color, and other vulnerable populations. Research shows that 85-90% of those in the criminal justice system fall below the poverty line, and the experience of incarceration only impoverishes people further. The consequences of having a criminal record are harsh and debilitating, ranging from family disruption, social alienation, and disenfranchisement. In these ways and others, the current situation of crime and punishment represents a dramatic moral challenge. Finally, victims of crime are themselves poorly served by the current system, often ignored or sidelined in the machinery of punishment. This course seeks to discover alternatives to the current systems of crime and punishment in order to imagine a more inclusive, just and moral society.

100% online course

Start instantly and learn at your own schedule.
Beginner Level

Beginner Level


Approx. 29 hours to complete

Suggested: 5 hours/week
Comment Dots


Subtitles: English

100% online course

Start instantly and learn at your own schedule.
Beginner Level

Beginner Level


Approx. 29 hours to complete

Suggested: 5 hours/week
Comment Dots


Subtitles: English

Syllabus - What you will learn from this course


5 hours to complete

Course Welcome and Introduction

This module introduces the course's focus on mass incarceration in the United States as an ethical challenge. The facts that define the issue reveal a nation in crisis. We begin with an exploration of religious faith as one starting point for our investigation. However, this course is intended for anyone who is concerned with the problem of incarceration. Beyond following the theological call to attend to the least of these, the course is also motivated by the sociological observation that we learn much about ourselves and our society by exploring how we treat those we deem "criminal." The first module describes the elements of mass incarceration in the United States, and begins to investigate the causes and consequences of this reality....
3 videos (Total 29 min), 7 readings, 2 quizzes
Video3 videos
Mass Incarceration: Introduction10m
Alex Friedmann: "Mass Incarceration, Criminalization, and Recidivism"5m
Reading7 readings
About this course3m
Recommended Readings10m
About the "Pre-Course Survey"10m
Western Theories of Justice40m
Trends in U.S. Corrections10m
Facts About Prisons10m
Quiz1 practice exercises
Pre-Course Survey20m


5 hours to complete

Crime and Punishment

This module takes up the questions of crime and punishment. What is crime and what are the purposes of punishment? What are the cultural resources that inform the way we think about punishment today?...
9 videos (Total 96 min), 4 readings, 1 quiz
Video9 videos
Doug Knight: "Justice and Mercy Applied: Stories from the Bible"17m
Doug Knight: "Stories of Justice and Mercy: Cain and Abel"12m
Doug Knight: "Stories of Justice and Mercy: The Goring of the Ox"5m
Doug Knight: "The Ten Commandments: Law, Order and Sacred Authority"8m
Doug Knight: "Why the Bible Still Matters: Crime and Punishment Today"12m
Social Theories of Punishment8m
Retributive Theories of Punishment8m
Utilitarian Theories of Punishment8m
Reading4 readings
The Bible and Punishment5m
Durkheim, The Functions of Crime30m
Retributive Justice30m
Legal Punishment30m


10 hours to complete

The Rise of the Prison

This module takes up the question of the rise of the prison, and its expressions in contemporary USA. How did the Prison Industrial Complex arise, and why has it taken the form it has? ...
11 videos (Total 115 min), 7 readings, 1 quiz
Video11 videos
The Rise of the Prison, Part 2: The Colonial Period to Now6m
Alex Friedmann: "What is the prison-industrial complex or PIC?"3m
Lisa Guenther: "How do prisoners end up in solitary confinement, and what happens there?"29m
"Why prisons Started using solitary confinement and why we should end the practice of extreme isolation"22m
Alex Friedmann: "History of the Private, For-Profit Prison: The Convict Lease System"9m
Joe Ingle: "The Convict Lease System"3m
Alex Friedmann: “The Private Prison Business Model”5m
Alex Friedmann: “Why Private Prisons? The Politics of Punishment”6m
Alex Friedmann: “Prisoners as Commodities: Moral and Ethical Objections to Private Prisons”11m
Alex Friedmann: “Private Prison Industry: Ancillary Products & Services”6m
Reading7 readings
History of Prisons35m
Film Viewing Guide: "The Farm: Angola Prison"45m
The “Legacy of Slavery” Comes to the Smithsonian with Angola Prison Guard Tower Donation5m
Angola Museum: History of Angola Prison10m
Viewing Guide and links to PBS "Slavery by Another Name"30m
Mother Jones: "My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard"45m
Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration45m


7 hours to complete

Criminalization: The Experience of Prison

This module looks more closely at the intimate details and experiences of criminalization and incarceration. We explore the experience of being charged with a crime, of going through the court system, and of finding oneself in prison. What is the experience of prison, both on those who find themselves inside and those who are the family and friends of the incarcerated?...
12 videos (Total 147 min), 4 readings, 1 quiz
Video12 videos
Alex Friedmann: "Mass Incarceration, Criminalization and Recidivism"5m
Dawn Deaner: “History and Purpose of Public Defense”6m
Dawn Deaner: “Public Defense: How it Works and Doesn't Work”8m
Dawn Deaner: “The Impact of Poverty on Justice”10m
Dawn Deaner: “Biggest Challenges in Public Defense”8m
Dawn Deaner: “Concluding Thoughts”2m
Chief August Washington: “Challenges to Policing”11m
Roundtable Discussion: The Experience of Prison13m
Roundtable Discussion: The Day-to-Day Reality of Prison17m
Roundtable Discussion: The Hidden Pains of Prison32m
Roundtable Discussion: Painful Truths About Prison in America16m
Reading4 readings
Gideon v. Wainwright 372 U.S. 335 (1963)30m
The Atlantic: "Travesties in Criminal Justice That Are Mostly Ignored"10m
Viewing Guide: PBS "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story"10m
Viewing Guide: "Rikers: An American Jail"30m


8 hours to complete

Race, Incarceration and Social Control

This module focuses directly on the dynamics of race and exclusion within the criminal justice system in the United States. It describes and seeks to explain the causes of racial disparity in incarceration rates and examines the mutually re-enforcing dynamics of poverty and incarceration....
6 videos (Total 59 min), 10 readings, 1 quiz
Video6 videos
The School-to-Prison Pipeline12m
Michael Fisher: "Poverty, Housing Policy, and Segregation"8m
Michael Fisher: "The Criminalization of Poverty"10m
Michael Fisher: "Crime: A Matter of Culture or Policy?"7m
Chief August Washington: “Policing and Racial Bias”3m
Reading10 readings
Alexis DeTocqueville, on the "Tyranny of the Majority"20m
McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987)30m
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology: "Comparative Review of Death Sentences: An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience"15m
Film Viewing Guide for PBS "Slavery by Another Name" (90 minutes)40m
The Atlantic: "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration"45m
Film Viewing Guide: "13th"10m
The New Yorker: "Kalief Browder, 1993–2015"10m
Recommended - The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Prison10m
The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty10m
Implicit Bias Brief10m


6 hours to complete

Justice and Mercy: Alternatives to Mass Incareration

The course has examined mass incarceration as a significant social and ethical problem. In this final module, we turn our attention to alternatives to the present system of punishment. Following Dean Townes' invitation, we seek to "respond to the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment." We explore community policing, criminal justice reform, and alternative models, including restorative justice, in a bid to locate possibilities for hope....
9 videos (Total 95 min), 2 readings, 2 quizzes
Video9 videos
Dean Emilie Townes: "How do we respond to dehumanizing effects of imprisonment"6m
Dean Emilie Townes: "How can we help people avoid re-incarceration? Building capacity in people by partnering with communities of faith”5m
Chief August Washington: “Community Policing”11m
Roundtable Discussion: “Restorative Justice: A Movement7m
Roundtable Discussion: “Restorative Justice: Principles and Practices”22m
Roundtable Discussion: “Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Mass Incarceration”21m
Roundtable Discussion: “Broadening the Impact of Restorative Justice”3m
Dean Emilie Townes: "Turning knowledge into action: Next Steps"8m
Reading2 readings
Viewing Guide for Bryan Stevenson's "We need to talk about an injustice"45m
Viewing Guide: Restorative Justice Process30m
Quiz1 practice exercises
End of Course Survey14m

Top Reviews

By PPDec 23rd 2017

Excellent course on practical aspects of Philosophy and Theology, on nowadays situation of mass incarceration. Let's perform a practical act of prayer, studying what this course has to say to us!

By JQJul 9th 2017

Great course. I enjoyed the lectures and readings.



Graham Reside

Assistant Professor

About Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University, located in Nashville, Tenn., is a private research university and medical center offering a full-range of undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees....

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Once you enroll for a Certificate, you’ll have access to all videos, quizzes, and programming assignments (if applicable). Peer review assignments can only be submitted and reviewed once your session has begun. If you choose to explore the course without purchasing, you may not be able to access certain assignments.

  • If you pay for this course, you will have access to all of the features and content you need to earn a Course Certificate. If you complete the course successfully, your electronic Certificate will be added to your Accomplishments page - from there, you can print your Certificate or add it to your LinkedIn profile. Note that the Course Certificate does not represent official academic credit from the partner institution offering the course.

  • Yes! Coursera provides financial aid to learners who would like to complete a course but cannot afford the course fee. To apply for aid, select "Learn more and apply" in the Financial Aid section below the "Enroll" button. You'll be prompted to complete a simple application; no other paperwork is required.

More questions? Visit the Learner Help Center