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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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Artifacts from the end of the Prison Industrial Complex

Download: The Knotted Line Curriculum

Foundational Understandings

  • The United States has historically confined large portions of its population. Today this is manifest at a scale larger than ever before through prisons, jails and detention centers. 
  • Imprisonment impacts different communities and people differently. The United States system disproportionately targets people of color, immigrants, queer, transgender, disabled, politically radical and poor people. 
  • “Safety” does not mean the same thing to everyone. 

Essential Questions 

  • What is the prison industrial complex?
  • What does a world without prisons look like and what will get us there?


Participants will...
...gain an understanding of the prison industrial complex (PIC) and why it is used as a concept. 
...explore historical roots of the PIC.
...imagine ways to create a world without the PIC.  


Common Core Standards

    Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.
    Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.


Length of Time:  Two 55-minute sessions
Recommended Age Range: 14-23
Ideal Number of Participants: 15-30

Materials Needed:

  • Flipchart paper and markers
  • Handout or projection of definition of prison industrial complex
  • PIC Mapping handout (Social, Economic, Political)
  • Power Words list
  • Student access to or print version
  • Sheets of flipchart paper with alphabet written in two vertical columns (one column on left side, one down the middle)
  • Blank paper, colored pencils or pens

Session 1

  1. Make four signs (agree, somewhat agree, disagree, somewhat disagree) and place one on each wall of the room.
  2. Prep three sheets of flipchart paper with the words “Prison,” “Industrial,” and “Complex” at the top (one word per page).
  3. Print Power Words and PIC Problem worksheets for each participant.
  4. Load The Knotted Line on computers or have the print versions available for participants (if working in small groups for the Identifying the Problems activity).

Part 1: Personal Connection & Reflection, Developing the Reason to Learn

Debate Activity

10 minutes
The facilitator explains the activity: On each wall you can see a sign. I’m going to reveal a statement in a moment and you will go to the area of the room that indicates what you think of the statement. We will put six minutes on the clock and then you will debate the statement. First, try to understand every word of the statement, then make your argument. If someone says something that changes your opinion, feel free to move to a different area in the room. 

"Prisons create more problems than solutions in our communities."

Facilitator should take notes on the board as the debate happens. When the time is up ask: What was something unexpected that you learned or heard? Why did you change your mind (if anyone did)?

This activity is adapted from the Debate Activity designed by Detroit Future Schools and is best when used regularly. For more on how it builds group culture and analysis, listening and collaboration skills, see

Part 2: Develop the Concept, Move from the Personal to the Theoretical

Defining the Prison Industrial Complex

20 minutes
Facilitator transitions the group:
Since the 1980s, the prison system in the U.S. has grown exponentially, such that the U.S. has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world. Some people call this system the prison industrial complex because it is much more than just prisons or jails. Let’s brainstorm what each of these words mean: Prison, Industrial, and Complex.

Facilitator writes the words and then asks for ideas:
Prison: What are the types of imprisonment in society? (Prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile halls, drug rehabilitation centers, schools (?), low-wage jobs, group homes, shelters...)
Industrial: What are the forms of industry that relate to prisons? Who is making their living based on prisons? (Policing, lawyers, phone companies, food companies, construction companies, politicians, security and surveillance industries, healthcare industry, border patrol, private prison corporations…)
Complex: What does this word mean? Where else do we hear it? (Complicated, many layers, not simple or one thing, housing/business complex, multiple related things grouped together...)

Based on our brainstorm, would anyone like to try to define the prison industrial complex? 

After a few responses, the facilitator shares the definition provided by Critical Resistance (either projected or in a handout) and participants are asked to compare it to the group’s ideas: 
“The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”
What are they missing? What are we missing?

What do we gain by thinking of it as the “prison industrial complex,” and not just “prison”?

Part 3: Active Experimentation with New Knowledge and Concepts

Identifying the Problems

25 minutes
Facilitator transitions the group: 
The previous definition says, “as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” We are going to unpack this a little more. We need to ask, what are these problems? Who are they problems for? And who do the solutions help or hurt? We are going to look at an example of each of these, and then think through alternative interpretations of these problems.

Facilitator note: The following can be done in a large group or in small groups. For groups who have some familiarity with these concepts we recommend small groups. If these are new ideas, the large group will work better. 

Hand out or project the PIC Narrative worksheets. Choose one to focus on to begin. 

Economic Problem worksheet: In the Central Valley of California there is high unemployment and certain areas of land are not profitable agriculturally. (Link to Knotted Line about this issue)

Social Problem: Violence in schools. (Link to Knotted Line about this issue)

Political problem: Shifting demographics of voting populations (increasingly younger, people of color and immigrants). (Link to Knotted Line about this issue)

Go through the Dominant Narrative column. What is missing, what maybe doesn’t fit? 
For each line, ask participants to offer ideas for the Flip the Script column as well. 
If people are working on their own or in small groups, participants can use the links above for more information on their problem

Share out what groups have come up with. 
How are these “solutions”?
Who do they benefit?

Finish with reflections from 2-3 people:
What is the most important or surprising thing you learned today?

Session 2

  1. Make sheets of flipchart paper with alphabet written in two vertical columns (one column on left side, one down the middle). The number of sheets is based on splitting the group into teams of 8-10.
  2. Prep art or media supplies. 

Part 4: Integration of Concepts & Experience, Learners Representing New Knowledge in their Own Voices

Alphabet Race - Solutionaries

20 minutes
Brainstorm on a board or flipchart: What is a “crisis”? (A difficult or dangerous situation that has reached a critical phase and requires serious attention.)
Now consider the following numbers:
  • 1 in 3 black men born today will be incarcerated in their lifetime.
  • In 2009, California spent $8,736 per student and $47,102 per adult inmate.
  • Between 1979 and 2009, the number of women incarcerated increased by 831%.
  • By 2010, nearly 400,000 people were deported yearly. 
  • The amount of people incarcerated, on parole or probation is equal to the combined populations of Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.

The facilitator writes PIC in a circle and then asks: How is the PIC creating a crisis in the US? Around the circle, the facilitator records participant responses.

The facilitator transitions the group: Now we are going to imagine the transformation of that crisis.

Divide the group into teams of 8-10.
Each team lines up in a single line with the person in the front of the line facing a flipchart paper with the alphabet written on it. Teams should be the same distance away from the wall. The first person in each team’s line has a marker. The facilitator explains the rules:
This is a race. When I say go, the first player will run up to the paper and write a solution to the crisis created by the PIC that begins with the letter A. 
As soon as they are finished they hand the marker off to the next person before heading to the back of the line. The next person runs up to the paper and has to think of a solution that begins with B and so on. There is no cutting the line or skipping letters, but teammates can help each other with ideas. 

The facilitator calls STOP when the first team reaches the end of the alphabet. Each team then walks around to view all the other responses and stop in front of another team’s alphabet. For each alphabet, someone should give one response that was interesting or inspiring and one that they have a question about. The authors of those responses should respond to the questions.
Any other general reflections or themes that you notice?

This activity is adapted from the Hurricane Season Curriculum.

Future Artifacts 

25 minutes
Facilitator transitions the group: We are going to dig a little deeper now and bring some of these solutions more into focus.
Participants divide into groups of 3-4.
The facilitator sets up the scenario:
“Imagine it is 50 years in the future and you are a historian. You’ve just discovered a key artifact that helped end the prison industrial complex. For example, maybe you found a letter from a movement leader that outlined their political strategy or a photo from a meeting, or glasses that made visible the impacts of the PIC everywhere, or a lotion that heals the trauma of imprisonment, or a hologram that allows families to stay in contact even when incarcerated. You can use the alphabet race to give you ideas too, but imagine big! Don’t worry about technical limitations, invent something totally new. 
Hand out the material of your choice. This can be done simply with pencil/pens and paper but the ideas often expand when there are multiple options for participants to work with. For a shortened time-frame, media like clay, found/recycled materials, drawing and short skits work well. If you have extended time, you could use media like stop motion videos, photography, green screens with photoshop, or linocut prints.

Conclusion: Report Back Findings

10 minutes
Participants reconvene in one large group and place artifacts on tables. Everyone walks around to view the other artifacts. Groups should share briefly about their artifacts and answer any questions. 

Facilitator Note: Make sure to document the final pieces!

This is adapted from a workshop developed for Yerba Buena Center's Young Artists at Work program by Evan Bissell.

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