ISS project examines reasons for U.S. mass incarceration

By: Lori Sonken,  Institute for the Social Sciences
September 23, 2015

An interdisciplinary team of Cornell scholars is collaborating on a new project, The Causes, Consequence and Future of Mass Incarceration in the United States, supported by the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) and led by Peter Enns, associate professor of government.

“The U.S. now incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any country in the world. Given the bipartisan Congressional interest in prison reform and reducing recidivism, project members hope to inform upcoming policy debates,” said Enns.

Over the next three years, the ISS theme project with members from the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Human Ecology will look at the factors leading to mass incarceration and the circumstances that shape the risk, severity and duration of one’s contact with the criminal justice system. Aside from Enns, the team members are Maria Fitzpatrick and Christopher Wildeman, both in policy analysis and management; Anna Haskins, sociology; and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, history.

This past summer, the group held a workshop focused on Enns’ book, “Incarceration Nation,” to be published next year by Cambridge University Press. Criminal justice scholars Christopher Uggen, Shadd Maruna and Steven Raphael, who were at Cornell attending a conference co-sponsored by the theme project, participated in the workshop.

“Even though my book had been accepted for publication, I still had the opportunity to make changes to the manuscript. The workshop allowed me to incorporate their editorial suggestions. If not for the ISS project, it is unlikely I would have had this opportunity,” Enns said.

Under the direction of Wildeman, the project members are looking at the influence that confinement conditions have on prisoners, their families and communities in Denmark, and plan to conduct a comparative analysis with the United States.

“We need to start thinking through how the conditions of confinement affect not only the individuals who experience incarceration, but also their families,” said Wildeman. To aid in the data analyses, Alyssa Goldman, a doctoral student in the field of sociology, is working with the project.

Team members plan to continue with their ongoing research as well.

“My work looks at whether parental incarceration has negative consequences for children’s educational achievements and trajectories,” said Haskins.

She addresses the intergenerational consequences of parental incarceration – a timely topic given that nearly 1 in 10 children in the United States has or has had a parent behind bars at some point during childhood.

Kohler-Hausmann is examining the roots of mass incarceration by exploring the history of getting “tough” on drug, crime and welfare fraud policies during the 1970s.

Pointing to the new cross-disciplinary minor in crime, prisons and justice funded with an Engaged Curriculum Grant from Engaged Cornell, as well as the Cornell Prison Education Project and the Law School’s Death Penalty Project, Enns said Cornell has some of the leading scholars in the criminal justice field. By developing new collaborations set on understanding the reasons for and the consequences of high prison populations, the team will be in a better position to help inform the policy debate and identify factors that could end the mass incarceration trend.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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