essay – synthesis: explaining mass incarceration

Write an essay of about 1800 words that explains mass incarceration, based on these sources:

Intro with thesis, full paragraphs, in-text citation & Works Cited (MLA citation). Do not use any other sources for this assignment. You may also need to do a little background reading on your own if you encounter confusing political or historical references or unfamiliar terms in the sources themselves. Not all the sources see the topic in the same way, and some of their explanations might conflict with each other. Your job is NOT to decide who’s right or to take sides; your job is to help a reader know what the different views are and how they differ.  

The best way to describe this kind of essay might be “background synthesis” – something an interested but uninformed person might use to get up to speed on a topic. The aim is not to prove that you know a lot, but to make your reader more knowledgeable than they were before they started reading.  

How to organize your essay

For this assignment, I recommend that you plan your essay around answering two main questions:

  • What aspects of mass incarceration does everyone agree on – what it is, how it started, and what it is like? (e.g. as described by Cullen, 13th, or Sawyer & Wagner).  no more than 20% of the essay.
  • How do different scholars explain mass incarceration, and what evidence supports them? These are represented, mainly, by Fortner, Pfaff, Latzer, and Michelle Alexander (as represented in 13th). You could organize this section to contrast between what Pfaff calls the “standard story” and the various alternative views that alter or reject this conventional view.


Q. Is this a summary essay?

A. No. You may have to summarize the ideas you encounter in the sources, but your job is to explain the topic itself. Summary and paraphrase of the sources is not a goal; it’s a tool you use to explain the topic.

Q. Is this an argument essay with a thesis?

A. Good essays usually have an identifiable thesis, but your thesis is likely to be descriptive – a statement that signals the focus of the paper. It won’t be an “argumentative” claim that takes a position and defends it.

Q. Is this a persuasive essay?

A. Yes and no. Yes, you need to persuade readers that your description of the topic is fair-minded, neutral and well-informed. No, you should not be trying to persuade a reader to agree with any particular view.