The Rochester Decarceration Research Initiative (RDRI) comprises eight faculty from Arts, Sciences & Engineering, the Warner School of Education, and the Medical Center at the University of Rochester. We do interdisciplinary research, teaching, and community engagement aimed at understanding and transforming the ways mass incarceration shapes life in our campus, city, region, and country.
Rochester, New York, is not usually thought of as a “prison town,” but for many reasons, it should be. Geographically, Rochester is at the center of the punishment regime known as “mass incarceration.”
Within 90 minutes of the University’s River Campus are 35 state prisons (including the historic Auburn and Attica), federal prisons, county jails, and immigrant detention centers. Though often hidden from view, these physical structures are, nonetheless, only the most obvious expressions of a system that prioritizes punishment over care and insists on calling the brutalization of already traumatized populations “justice.” They reflect an urgent problem that impacts not only how our community keeps a great many people in cages, but also how we educate our children, care for our sick, and administer our public space.
With these concerns in mind, RDRI was launched in 2017, galvanized in part by the University of Rochester strategic planning process. In the 2017-2018 academic year, RDRI was awarded a $75,000 University Research Award to investigate the question: How is Rochester a prison town?
RDRI has two goals. In the near term, RDRI aims to catalogue and analyze the many ways Rochester is a prison town—that is, a town tied politically, economically, and culturally to the jails and prisons around it, a town governed by carceral logics that center punishment at the expense of public health. Because of mass incarceration’s vast reach, these logics must be approached from a variety of vantage points and methodologies. As such, our cross-disciplinary team includes humanistic scholars, social scientists, health care researchers, and formerly incarcerated researchers.
RDRI’s longer-term aim could be to become institutionalized as the Center for Transformative Justice at the University of Rochester. We see this Center for Transformative Justice as an internationally relevant resource rooted in the particularities of our history and geography right here in Rochester. This center will aim to transform justice based on the research, teaching, and community engagement we are currently doing, which will only grow as we move forward.