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Knocked Up and Locked Up: Pregnancy and Prisons in Literature and Law

Interview with Carol Mason
by Cheyenne Hohman

The popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” tells the story of a woman in prison and her fellow inmates, at least one of whom gets pregnant. It’s also course material for Carol Mason’s new course, GWS 700/595: Pregnancy and Prisons in Literature and Law. The Fall 2014 course, also called “Knocked Up and Locked Up,” will examine the political, racial and social contexts that pregnant women in prison experience.

“What I like about this class is that it reflects a relatively new way of looking at such issues, casting the net wide to include concerns that are not usually thought about as ‘reproductive rights,’” Mason said. “I’m less interested in teaching [students] a particular point of view about these issues than I am in showing them fact-based evidence in historical and cultural contexts and having them come to conclusions of their own. The advantage of this GWS seminar is that it is a one-stop shop for many different disciplinary views on the subject.  It’s an assemblage of perspectives from sociology, criminology, literature, law, critical race theory, anthropology and media studies.”

The course will look at the criminalization and regulation of pregnant people in the United States from the first European colonies to today. Course material will range from legal theory to literature.  Mason draws a comparison between the two, noting that authors and lawyers are as much a product of their time as they are of their professional or artistic training.

“Reading transcripts of court hearings or texts of laws can illuminate what kinds of values people prioritize or disdain. Likewise, we can read novels as historical artifacts,” she said. “Critical legal theory has always understood that the letter of the law is as imbued with cultural narratives as are novels and other literary writing.”

GWS 700 will also look at the intersections of race, class and gender where it pertains to this issue. “We’ll look at the disparities of incarcerating women by race and class.  For example, 1 in 355 white women ages 35-39 are incarcerated but 1 in 100 black women ages 35-39 are incarcerated in America. What accounts for this difference?  New studies like the enormously popular book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, give us some answers.”

The course, a graduate seminar, isn’t just for students with a Gender and Women’s Studies concentration. “This is a graduate course that will help any future doctor or lawyer consider the cultural and historical contexts alongside the technical knowledge they’ll receive in their professional training.  Anyone interested in criminology, public health, social justice, medical technology, social work, or public advocacy would benefit from this course,” said Mason.

If you’re interested in taking this course, more information is available in our A&S Course Catalog