Comparative Literature Class at UCSB Reckons With Juvenile Incarceration

Illustration by Echo Dieu

Wenchen Li
Contributing Writer

For the past few years, the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) comparative literature department has done projects and courses centered around the juvenile justice system. This winter, a small course brings to light injustices within the current system in the United States by connecting students with juvenile youth at Los Prietos Boys Camp in Santa Barbara.

In the intimate class composed of 20 people who meet once a week for three hours, students read and discuss a wide range of readings on juvenile justice and the prison industrial complex — what instructors such as UCSB professor Rick Benjamin and Freedom 4 Youth Co-Founder Dr. Billi Jo Starr describe as “just the latest manifestation of slavery.” 

At the heart of the course are intensive conversations, readings, and engagement with people who are system-impacted. 

“There is a lot of misinformation going on [in regards to the justice system in America] and the best way to learn how it actually works is by communicating with people who are directly involved in the system,” said fourth-year sociology major Xzavria Alcala in an interview with The Bottom Line.  

Co-teaching the course are professor Rick Benjamin and Dr. Billi Jo Starr. Benjamin, adjunct professor of comparative literature and former Rhode Island state poet laureate, has had a long history of working with incarcerated individuals and has featured community practice as a component in his courses. 

Starr, a UCSB alumnus, is also the director of Freedom 4 Youth, a local non-profit that has been working with youth in the juvenile justice system for 12 years. Their focus is on providing peer mentoring services and building compassionate communities to empower youth at Los Prietos Boys Camp.

Through the readings, students undertake serious academic inquiry into increasingly punitive structures for minor infractions, and how these disproportionately affect people of color. According to the statistics provided by the professors, black and brown men, while making up 32 percent of the U.S. population, nevertheless comprise 60 percent of all people who are currently incarcerated under the current disciplinary structures. 

The readings examine the history of chattel slavery, convict leasing, school-to-prison-pipeline, and the evolution of the prison industrial complex. They are written by intellectuals, activists, and literary artists deeply involved in or as a part of the incarceration system from different points of view, including such thinkers as Angela Davis, Jesymn Ward, Michelle Alexander, and Rachel Kusner just to name a few. Students also listen to podcasts, like “Ear Hustle,” made by people who are currently or have been incarcerated themselves.

“The readings in the course provide a broader vision and thinking on the whole justice system and how it has come into being,” said Alcala, who admits that the readings motivate her to continue mentoring at Freedom 4 Youth every Tuesday. 

For both professor Benjamin and Dr. Starr, the course is personal. ”Like our students,” they explained in an email interview with The Bottom Line, “each of us is emotionally engaged with [the juvenile justice system], and care deeply about both friends and family who have been system-impacted.”

Exposure to the reality of the system and a building-up of a close community are the two most valuable takeaways from the course for the students and professors. 

“The course content can be so heartbreaking, but, from the beginning, all of us are equally determined to advance knowledge and practice and empathy designed to change, question and disrupt systems … that … have become obsolete,”  the instructors concluded through email.

According to Alcala, the Los Prietos Boys Camp she volunteers at involves light offenses, while in the reading materials she can see youth who are “actually behind the cages.” “It is very different from knowing it is there to actually recognizing its impact,” she said. 

The format of discussion-based course helps build a sense of community. People who have family members or friends affected by the system will find it an inclusive community for one to be vulnerable and share stories openly.

As the quarter goes on, the course will also offer experiences in community practice such as voter registration in local detention facilities, mentorship opportunities, support to women and families who are system-impacted, and organization of advocacy events. 

Next week, boys from the Los Prietos Boys Camp will come to the course and share their personal stories.