Place and Punishment: The Geography of Mass Imprisonment (book project)

Over the last four decades, mass imprisonment transformed the character of poverty and community life in the United States. However, two sociological research traditions with close empirical connections to the role of justice institutions in poor communities – research on mass incarceration and research on neighborhood effects and urban poverty – have only recently been in conversation. While urban sociologists focused on identifying and analyzing neighborhood effects, sociologists of punishment studied the political and economic causes of the prison boom. Urban poverty and neighborhood effects research paid insufficient attention to dynamic patterns of structural disadvantage within both urban and non-urban places due to mass imprisonment. Thus, while mass incarceration unfolded in a diverse set of communities, only a few large cities have been studied. Simultaneously, research on mass imprisonment failed to account for the role of local context and spatial inequality.

This project aims to build a statistical and spatial portrait of criminal justice practices in communities in Massachusetts and across the United States. Through a novel analysis of both existing data and data collected from correctional institutions and cities, the project uses a Massachusetts-wide database of prison admissions and releases, city budgets, census data, and organizational records to study how local expenditures and revenue related to courts, policing, jails and other criminal justice institutions are correlated with imprisonment rates, and how differences in city and county practices help explain disproportionately higher rates of imprisonment in small cities and suburbs.

Solitary Confinement and the Experience of Punishment

Solitary confinement is an extreme form of prison custody involving isolation from the prison’s general population and highly restricted access to visitation and phone calls, programs, and free movement outside of a prison cell. Few studies have examined the conditions of confinement during the United States prison boom. In a paper with Ryan Sakoda, we examine detailed prison records covering 30 years of practices in the Kansas Department of Corrections (1985–2014). We find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment: 38 percent of whites and 46 percent of blacks experienced solitary confinement during their prison term. While long stays in isolation were rare in the late 1980s with no detectable disparities, the opening of a new prison began an era of long-term isolation most heavily impacting black young adults. A decomposition analysis indicates the increase in the length of time spent in solitary confinement almost entirely explains the growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide new evidence that forces of punishment driving growth in the prison population led to highly punitive prison conditions and unmeasured forms of inequality emerging from the experience of punishment.

I am co-Principal Investigator (with Bruce Western) of the Pennsylvania Solitary Study (PASS). PASS examines the effects and conditions of solitary confinement with a longitudinal survey of incarcerated men (N=117, including a main sample of 99 and a pretest sample of 18) who were living in a Restricted Housing Unit in the Pennsylvania state prison system during 2017. Combining fieldwork and interviews with incarcerated people and prison staff (N=22), a neurocognitive battery administered to incarcerated respondents, and an analysis of administrative records, PASS breaks new ground in research on prisons and inequality, using mixed methods to study conditions of penal confinement and effects on health and well-being, labor force participation after prison release, and recidivism.

The Criminal Immigrant Stereotype (with Maria Abascal)

The belief that immigrants pose a threat to public safety is historically resilient and flourishes during periods of demographic diversification and economic downturn. Despite the inverse association between immigration and real-world crime rates, about three in four Americans agree that "immigrants cause higher crime." Perceived criminal threat from immigrants is a strong predictor of support for punitive immigration policies and other political attitudes, including support for Donald Trump. The association between immigrants and crime, in short, informs political agendas that adversely affect the lives of immigrants and their families. However, we know surprisingly little about the nature or causes of the criminal immigrant stereotype. Is it rooted in a broader association between criminality and non-White ethnicity and/or dark phenotype, as experiments show for U.S. Blacks? Or is it driven by the view that being undocumented is itself a crime, though the regulation of immigration to the U.S. is generally a civil, not a criminal, matter? Our study deploys a survey experiment to tackle the nature of the immigrant-crime association and its implications for diversification and preferences for punitive policies.