Current Research Activities
My research focuses on mass incarceration, prisoner reentry, and social welfare policy. Utilizing qualitative research methods, my work documents the daily lives of formerly incarcerated people, focusing on their struggles to survive conditions of acute poverty and navigate criminal legal and social welfare bureaucracies. My current book project, entitled Getting the Runaround, argues that the very institutions designed to facilitate the transition from incarceration to community life perversely undermine reintegration. Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork and 45 in-depth interviews with formerly incarcerated men returning to New York City, Getting the Runaround reveals how the mundane rules and practices of parole offices, welfare programs, and transitional housing facilities function as bureaucratic barriers that contribute to the ongoing marginalization and social control of the formerly incarcerated. Getting the Runaround expands our understanding of the “barriers to reentry” by illustrating how the treadmill of bureaucratic rules and procedures returning citizens must navigate - what I call "the runaround" - functions to destabilize and discourage reintegration. The book also contributes to scholarship on gender and desistance by showing how formerly incarcerated men express "reformed masculinity" through their ability to cope with the runaround. Finally, the book challenges narrow definitions of reentry "success," by revealing how formerly incarcerated men struggle with chronic housing insecurity and unemployment long after desisting from crime, demonstrating the failure of safety-net programs to extend life chances beyond basic survival and low wage work. Ultimately, Getting the Runaround illustrates the deep limitations of current reentry policy and argues for the urgent need to embrace a social justice model of prisoner reentry.
Research Connections to Current Events
My work directly engages with questions about criminal justice reform, particularly issues related to prisoner reentry. As the events of summer 2020 vividly demonstrated, our criminal legal system is in need of a fundamental reimagining. This is true not only in the context of policing, but also in our systems of incarceration and community corrections. Creating a just and equitable society means not only removing racial bias from our criminal legal system; it also means investing in public infrastructure to strengthen the fabric of marginalized communities. In the context of prisoner reentry, this means not only removing harmful and racially biased barriers to employment, housing, and voting, but also investing in a generous and responsive social safety net to meet the needs of people returning home from incarceration and the communities that receive them. My research shows that approaches to reentry that focus only on investing in law enforcement and crime control are counter productive and do not lead to inclusive or socially just reentry outcomes. Instead, my research demonstrates the dire need to invest in adequate housing, basic income, public health, education, and employment to meet the basic needs of formerly incarcerated people and their communities. These types of investments not only foster the social and economic reintegration of the formerly incarcerated, but they also help marginalized communities build the capacity for informal social control -- the bonds of family, employment, education, and community health that prevent crime in the first place.
Personal Connections to Research
My interest in issues surrounding mass incarceration and prisoner reentry is an outgrowth of my involvement in human rights activism. Inspired by the idealism of punk rock and the work of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Steven Biko, I founded a chapter of Amnesty International in high school and led letter writing campaigns to free prisoners of conscience around the globe. I later became involved in death penalty abolition efforts, after learning about racial disparities in the application of capital punishment in the U.S. It was through these efforts that I became aware of the broader racial disparities in our criminal legal system and first began to learn about the issue of mass incarceration. In college and graduate school, I dove deeper into these issues. I studied the work of scholars like David Garland, Bruce Western, Loic Wacquant, Lynne Haney, Jonathan Simon, Joan Petersilia, and Michelle Alexander. Many of these scholars had written extensively about what had caused mass incarceration. However, I wanted to learn about how mass incarceration was impacting our society today. Because of mass incarceration, more people are released from prison and jail every year than ever before. We know that this group faces immense challenges to finding work and housing. My research explores how formerly incarcerated people navigate these challenges in their everyday lives. In doing so, I hope to challenge the negative impact of mass incarceration on our society and to stand as an advocate for the human rights of our most marginalized and vulnerable citizens.
Prisoner Reentry, Mass Incarceration, Urban Poverty, Racial Inequality, Poverty Governance, Qualitative Research Methods, Law and Society