In her TED Talk, How we’re priming some kids for college – and others for prison[1], Alice Goffman discusses her investigation into America’s mass incarceration problem. Goffman’s approach focuses on America’s youth, and how divergent paths to adulthood is a significant factor impacting the Unites States’ vast population of inmates. Goffman describes how today’s youth are guided to one of two institutions: college or prison.


Through her experiences tutoring in the underprivileged Philadelphia neighborhoods that surround her private university, Goffman paints a bleak picture of childhoods overshadowed by the threat of prison. She describes observing children in a game of cops and robbers, a well-known childhood game of pretend. However, in these Philadelphia neighborhoods, the game is all too realistic. Physical violence, threats and abuse of power by the children acting as cops reveal how ingrained the fear of police is in young minds in these neighborhoods. She describes older siblings using their experiences to teach young siblings how to avoid police, not for the purpose of avoiding getting caught for crimes, but to avoid being accused of them.

A common reaction to these claims is the argument that if these young adults were not committing crimes, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Goffman addresses this point in two ways. First, with a specific story of an eighteen-year-old high school student she knew. This student reacted to another student taunting him with insults to his mother by pushing him in the snow. The pushed student was uninjured. In an extreme reaction, the student was charged with aggravated assault and was sent to jail until the case was ultimately dismissed. Once released, the student was told he was too old to enroll in high school to complete his education, and was saddled with court fees he was unable to pay. A warrant was then issued for his inability to pay fees. This is arguably an egregious over-reaction to a schoolyard incident and kicks off a series of related significant consequences. Sure, the student was wrong to push another student. But does every scuffle between kids lead to jail time and a bar from completing high school educations? Not in the world Goffman grew up in. Clearly students in neighborhoods as described by Goffman have reason to worry that minor incidents will be blown out of proportion by the justice system, leaving them to attempt to dig out of the aftermath.


Secondarily, Goffman compares the group of young adults she grew up with and went to school with to emphasize the reality of this issue. According to Goffman, no one at her private college has a criminal record. Instead of attributing that to perfect behavior on their part, she insinuates that such a clean record would not be possible if police had bothered to search them, to check on them, or to monitor them. Police enter the underprivileged neighborhoods, rather than the privileged communities, to make arrests and to look for any misstep by the members of the community. Goffman insists that these underprivileged children and young adults are asked to walk a thin line, while those in privileged neighborhood are free to make mistakes, to make bad choices, without long term consequences if any consequences at all.


Though it is not her specified call to action, Goffman asks the audience to consider how the situation could be improved if society, as a whole, would broaden their thinking about innocent and guilty. This is an interesting premise. Society should not limit their conceptual framework to two categories: the criminals and the innocent. Goffman suggests that a change in perspective would result in a change in action. Treating these underprivileged youth as citizens who need societies’ help rather than condemnation would result in support rather than jail time.


Goffman wraps up her presentation with a somewhat hopeful message regarding America’s progress as of late, with a nod to Michelle Alexander and others like her who are working diligently for social justice reform. True to the theme of her presentation, not only is the focus of the analysis on America’s youth, but the call to action is directed at them as well. Goffman asks young people, those in both communities channeling kids to college and those in communities channeling to prison, to step up as leaders in justice system reform. This is an interesting proposal: that it is America’s youth that can be the change the system needs. However, her call to action leaves more questions unanswered. Goffman’s personal story is that of a well-off white girl in a private university who focused her academic career on justice studies and reform. Her path serves as one example to those college-bound American youth for how they can answer her call to action. However, her call to action lacks specificity when it comes to how those youth who are struggling in the current system, who are not on Goffman’s path, are to lead system reform. Of course this is not to say that those American youth in the disadvantaged category (as articulated by Goffman) are not equally capable of leading justice reform, but her presentation implies that these young people might have dramatically different obstacles in responding to Goffman’s call to action, which is not addressed here.

Allison Nunes