Interview with Jessica Simes, co-winner of the 2022 Robert E. Park Book Award

Jessica Simes was the co-winner of the 2022 Robert E. Park Book Award for her book, Punishing Places: The Geography of Mass Imprisonment. CUSS publication team member Kyle Galindez reached out to Jessica to discuss the genesis of her book and what is next for her research agenda. Thanks, Jessica, and congratulations again!

What were the main findings of your research?

Punishing Places addresses a fundamental question at the intersection of urban and punishment research: How do place-based disadvantages and residential segregation shape patterns of incarceration in the United States? While mass incarceration has mainly been theorized as the result of macro-level policies or micro-level discrimination, place is an under-appreciated meso-level mechanism of high imprisonment rates and racial disparities. To fill this gap, I apply spatial analysis to administrative records with unprecedented geographic detail that include all prison admissions in Massachusetts spanning 20 years. I contextualize this analysis with U.S. county-level jail and prison admissions data, as well as interview data. I leverage these data to expand our understanding of mass incarceration in three key ways. First, I demonstrate a historically new and nearly universal shift in the location of high incarceration rates from large urban areas to small cities, suburbs, and rural communities. Second, I show why mass incarceration must be conceptualized as a legacy of racial residential segregation in the U.S. I find remarkable consistency in Black and Latino neighborhood incarceration rates despite recent geographic shifts in prison admissions and emergent trends in incarceration rates within white neighborhoods. Finally, I argue that existing measures of mass incarceration fail to capture its broad consequences for community well-being and social inclusion; I thus reconceptualize it as a form of community loss, and draw from environmental science to define a concept of punishment vulnerability.

What motivated you to study this research topic?

I have always been deeply committed to understanding how places structure access to advantages and disadvantages in U.S. society. However, when I began to read the sociology of punishment literature, I found that few had considered how place shapes contact with the criminal justice system, particularly outside of major U.S. cities. I wanted to attend to that gap by showing how a focus on neighborhood and community-level conditions and local incarceration rates might sharpen our understanding of the historic rise in incarceration as well as racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

What surprises did you find as you conducted your fieldwork/study?

When I initially began this project, I expected that the places with highest incarceration rates would be found within large cities—the places that have received the greatest research and policy attention. I was surprised to find that neighborhoods and communities outside of, and in some instances, far beyond large population centers, are deeply affected by mass incarceration. This led to a change in my research trajectory, and specifically, a focus on small cities as important sites for understanding urban and community social processes and policymaking more broadly.

How do you plan to build on this work in the future?

We know that place matters, but how does it matter, and how does attending to that question offer new tools for ending mass incarceration? In a new project I will use computational methods to identify a diverse array of place-based mechanisms that may be driving variation in rates of and disparities in incarceration across time and space, including local housing discrimination, wealth gaps, segregation, instability, public housing, environmental toxins, evictions, enforcement practices, and electoral politics. This project will also examine incarceration as one of several criminal justice exposures that may affect social inclusion and community well-being among non-incarcerated community members, as measured by voting and mortality. This project will refine how we conceptualize incarceration and reorient conversations about mass incarceration’s effects, broadening the scope to consider how potential harms extend to the community members and neighbors of incarcerated people.

The book has also afforded me new opportunities to collaborate with local and state agencies on the development of place-based approaches to housing and economic development intended to redress the legacies of policing and incarceration in communities across Massachusetts. I hope to strengthen and expand these kinds of collaborations and develop more pathways for research to have direct policy impact.

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