In the last 50 years, the number of individuals in American prisons has increased over 600 percent, such that the United States, a country with less than five percent of the world’s population, now incarcerates nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. This is an urgent problem.
Mass incarceration has a devastating impact on poor communities, and on black and brown men and women especially. But these problems are not limited to our justice system. The carceral logics and retributive frameworks that give us so many prisons and jails are thoroughly entrenched in our politics, economics, society, and culture, too. Prison is a discrete institution, but the spirit of the prison haunts our hospitals and schools, our homes and our workplaces, what we watch on television and what we worry about when we can’t fall asleep.
Researchers at the University of Rochester are well situated to study the local manifestations of this national problem. With 35 federal, state, and county prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers located within 90 minutes of campus, the University is in one of the most explicitly carceral landscapes in the world. And yet, it is still possible to be unaware of the ubiquity of prisons and jails in our surroundings.
This sense that prisons are distant entities is not accidental but, rather, a form of invisibility designed to keep our massive carceral state out of sight and out of mind, enabling and perpetuating the social crisis. As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, to understand prisons and their place in contemporary America, we need to shift the prison conceptually from the periphery to the center, to show how the prison and its many offshoots shape the everyday lives of people in our community.
Our locality matters, and locality as such matters. While mass incarceration is shaped by national policies, in recent years, sociologists and legal scholars have begun attending to the everyday interactions with families, neighbors, educators, police officers, and judges through which people are criminalized. The research conducted by the members of the Rochester Decarceration Research Intiative (RDRI) looks to the state of incarceration in the greater Rochester region to demonstrate how prisons are not “out there” someplace, but rather are embedded in our economics, our politics, our relationships, and our culture right here. Our goal is to both understand these phenomena and change them.
While our immediate goal is to make sense of Rochester’s carceral culture, our long-term goal is to change it: to eliminate jails and prisons, and to transform the culture of punishment into a culture of collective care. RDRI’s work is tailored to Rochester’s unique carceral geography, but with success, our collaborative, interdisciplinary approach may provide a model for others around the country who are working to decarcerate their own communities.
With a research team that spans the School of Arts and Sciences, Warner School of Education, and University of Rochester Medical Center, RDRI supplements existing scholarship on mass incarceration through a collaborative, multi-method, localized approach.
RDRI’s work is:
- Ethnographic, involving qualitative research to understand how prisons are lived and imagined by the local communities that depend on them economically
- Community-engaged, involving workshops and focus groups with justice-involved people from the urban communities most impacted by mass incarceration
- Archival, involving the analysis of the textual, visual, and material culture of mass incarceration
The project also uses quantitative data analysis, as well as geo-spatial analysis and data visualization techniques, to examine broader patterns while also paying attention to the politics of data access and representation.
We aim to provide insight into how carceral logics shape our own community, as well as how nationwide regimes of mass incarceration and mass criminalization are experienced—and can be undone.