[Seniors in the SOAN department have the opportunity of pursuing a field-based research project that culminates in a senior thesis. I’ve asked our seniors to briefly describe the research project they are beginning to configure for fieldwork in the remainder of our academic year.]
The US Prison System is a complex web of relationships between various state institutions and private entities. These diverse actors–from private companies who make specialized goods for use in the prisons to legislators to prison guards–have overlapping goals and intentions, and different understandings of how and why the system exists in the first place. Is the prison’s primary purpose to punish, to rehabilitate, to turn a profit, or something else entirely? It really depends who you ask. More importantly, how does this network of considerations manifest in practice? How these tensions play out directly impact the lives of people in prison; these individuals experience the final product of so many political choices, of all of these systems, institutions, private entities, and other forces, coming together.
But what happens when prisoners reenter society? The vast majority of people who are currently incarcerated will eventually return to their communities but they do not leave the system unchanged. Those who have been incarcerated are likely to be impacted by the experience itself but on the most basic level, they return to society with a publicly accessible criminal record. This alone has a huge impact on employment opportunities and often their visibility in the community to law enforcement. It seems punishment doesn’t cease entirely when citizens physically leave the walls of the prison.
On the other hand, incarceration can also interrupt destructive cycles in the lives of individuals. We are familiar with redemption stories of people who go to prison and begin educating themselves or encounter something fundamentally life changing that leads that person to refocus their intentions, the Malcolm Xs so to speak. It is not my intent to romanticize this, because these stories are truly the exception rather than the norm. The US Criminal Justice System has incredibly high rates of recidivism. But surely these cases occur, and I think it’s fair to say that most people involved with “Corrections” would like to find meaningful ways to lower recidivism rates.
What factors allow a select few to break the “revolving door” cycle? Should we expand access to therapeutic programs? Educational programs? Vocational training? Does the system need to be harsher still to deter people from committing crimes? What actually makes a difference in people’s lives on the inside and beyond and what is the system accomplishing? At what point does punishment stop? Does the system criminalize behaviors or does it criminalize people, marking them permanently as second class citizens? The public accessibility of a criminal record alone could be considered a form of punishment that follows a person long after their formal sentences have ended, though some would argue a person’s criminal record is important public knowledge related to public safety.
Through an ethnographic study of formerly incarcerated citizens, I will explore how this experience impacts life outside the prison. In addition to semi-structured interviews, I incorporate participant observation, drawing upon my experiences volunteering with at least one organization that operates a program for prisoners outside the prison walls in conjunction with a local corrections facility. Though I am involved with one organization that operates within a local prison, for specific reasons I will not incorporate any experiences I have had volunteering with any programs that operate inside the walls of the prison into my research. I examine the consequences of being labeled an “ex-con” and whether or not various kinds of programs within prisons can improve opportunities for individuals upon reentry, counteracting some of the social handicaps that come with the legal status as a felon.