Yale University is offering a course this fall that likens the US prison system to the Soviet Gulag, with one of the professors leading the course describing America as home to “one of the most brutal prison societies in human history” on social media Monday.
The course, titled “Mass Incarceration in the Soviet Union and the United States” is billed by the Ivy League school as “[a]n investigation of the experience and purposes of mass incarceration in the Soviet Union and the United States in the twentieth century.”
“Incarceration is central to the understanding, if not usually to the self-understanding, of a society. It is thus a crucial aperture into basic questions of values and practices,” reads the online course description. “This course proposes a frontal approach to the subject, by investigating two of the major carceral systems of the twentieth century, the Soviet and the American.”
The description adds that the course will touch on “important comparative cases, such as Nazi Germany and communist China.”
The word “Gulag” is commonly used to refer to the system of Soviet labor camps where common criminals and political prisoners alike were held during the first four decades after the Russian Revolution. Scholars relying on recently opened Soviet archives estimate that approximately 1.6 million prisoners died in the camps between 1930 and 1953; however, some historians believe the true number of deaths to be between three and four times greater.
“Gulag” entered the English lexicon with the 1974 publication of “The Gulag Archipelago,” a searing account of life in the camps written by dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The course will be led by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder and philosophy professor Jason Stanley. On Monday, Stanley explained the background of the course on Twitter.
“The United States is the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, and has been for many decades. Almost 10 [percent] of the WORLD’s prison population comes from the US’s traditionally oppressed minority, the 38 million Black Americans. US prisons are famous for brutality,” he tweeted.
“A small handful of ethnic groups in human history have faced such extraordinary rates of incarceration. But few for so many decades. Why perpetuate this cycle? Is this how the US wants history to remember it? As one of the most brutal prison societies in human history?”
In the same thread, Stanley accused the media of fanning what he described as a “mass national panic, invariably racial” about an increase in violent crime by “[r]eporting percentage rises, which can be shocking when the base rate is low [and] Ignoring national trends and context.”
Stanley’s assessment of the crime spike echoed that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who said last week that she hoped concern about violent crime “doesn’t drive a hysteria and that we look at these numbers in context so that we can make responsible decisions about what to allocate in that context.”
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