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December 14, 2020

Lesson Plan: Obstacles facing those released from prison after felony convictions

This lesson is part of our Searching for Justice series on criminal justice reform.

For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. (You will need to make a copy of the document to edit it.)

Overview: Those who have served time for serious crimes continue to face major obstacles to putting their lives on track after release from prison. These obstacles include difficulty finding employment and housing. The problem can be especially difficult for those who were convicted of felonies as juveniles, or people not yet legally adults.

This lesson profiles a man who was convicted of a homicide as a teenager and is trying to re-establish his life many years later after becoming a formally incarcerated person; we will also use the term “returning citizen” in this lesson in order to make clear these individuals have civil rights afforded to those living in a democracy. The lesson asks students to consider how their own community could better reintegrate returning citizens, especially those convicted of crimes as juveniles.

Subjects: U.S. History, U.S. Government & Civics, Criminal Justice, Legal Studies

Estimated time: One or two 50-minute class periods

Grade level: 7th-12th grade


  • Students will examine the challenges faced by those individuals formerly convicted of felonies in reintegrating into their communities. 
  • Students will research juvenile justice and discuss the ways felony convictions of juveniles (those under age 18, not considered legal adults) can have consequences long after release from prison. 
  • Students will debate ways their communities can better integrate returning citizens who have served time for felonies. 


Warm-up activity:

Watch this video profile of Bryan Stevenson, whose organization, Equal Justice Initiative, provides legal representation to those who cannot afford it throughout the South, including children. (If there is time, you can use this lesson based on the video before using this full lesson).  Have your students answer the question, “Do you think people should be punished for the rest of their lives for things they do before they are adults?”

Main activity:

Have your students answer the questions. You can use this Google doc worksheet for responses. (You will need to have students make a copy of the document so they can add their names and input answers.)

  1. First, have students answer the following factual questions, either in class discussion and/or as written answers.
      1. In what way(s) do you think Mr. Plummer’s upbringing impacted his criminal actions as a teen?
      2. Why did he sell drugs? What was he initially trying to obtain?
      3. What actions did Mr. Plummer take in prison to best take advantage of the opportunities afforded him?
      4. What were some of the struggles Mr. Plummer, and other returning citizens, faced in trying to get his life back together after he was released? What was the impact of COVID?
      5. What does Mr. Plummer currently do to help others not make the same choices as he did?
  2. Have students write a personal response summarizing the video – How do you feel about the barriers Mr. Plummer faces in becoming part of his community?
      1. If you could speak with Mr. Plummer, what are two questions you would ask him?
  3. Have students pair/share with a partner. Discuss as an entire class.
  4. Have students discuss the following question: In the video, it was stated that those released after a felony conviction are 10 times more likely to be homeless and 3 times more likely to be unemployed. What do you think are some challenges for those individuals returning to the community? What are the challenges for their communities?
  5. Have students investigate the facts on Youth.gov about the juvenile justice system.
      1. Ask your students to record three facts that stood out to them, and why.
  6. Finish with a class discussion using the following questions.
      1. How can your local community – schools, organizations, businesses or local government – help returning citizens better rejoin society and avoid “recidivism” (rearrest or re-imprisonment for new convictions or parole violations)
      2. What can students do to help reduce felony convictions in the juvenile justice system that will potentially follow those convicted for the rest of their lives?
  7. If there is time: Discuss the ways crime and punishment have been covered in the media in the United States. Visit our site journalisminaction.org and click on the case study for the Muckrakers. If you ‘d like, you can skip to this primary source page and have students answer questions there. After reviewing the case study, ask your students.
      1. What parallels do you see between the ways crime is covered in the media today and the ways it was covered by muckrakers at the turn of the century?
      2. What are some significant differences?

Extension activities:

This lesson uses a video segment from PBS NewsHour’s “Searching for Justice” series. Searching for Justice explores criminal justice reforms unfolding across the country, as the leaders from both sides of the political aisle attempt to end mass incarceration by rethinking laws that some say have become barriers to work, housing, and economic stability. Click here for more stories and the series and watch for more NewsHour EXTRA lesson content based on Searching for Justice stories.

  • If you would to extend this lesson, click here for a lesson on “collateral consequences” and felony disenfranchisement — the ways those convicted of crimes face limitations to their rights as punishment beyond prison.
  • If you would like a full lesson on the warm-up video with Bryan Stevenson, you can click here.

Tim Smyth teaches 10th and 11th grade social studies at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Smyth has spoken about how he uses comics in his classroom at numerous conferences including Comic Cons in San Diego, New York and Chicago as well as at the Pennsylvania and National Council for the Social Studies conferences. He has also guest lectured at multiple universities and travels the country giving professional development on comics as engaging literature. H also works with the U.S. State Department in a global online exchange program teaching educators and students to use comics to find their voice and to solve pressing global issues. Smyth maintains a comprehensive website and blog on all things comics in education at TeachingWithComics.com.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Common Core Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • C3 Standards
    • D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
    • D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

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