My research explores the social and political impact of mass incarceration on men and women who are serving time, their families and communities, as well as on prisons themselves. Prisons and jails are among the most hidden of our public institutions. In spite of a great deal of research mapping our increasing reliance on incarceration as a punishment and the social and economic costs of doing so, we still know relatively little about what happens inside the “black box” that is the penal system. For this reason, I have spent most of my research career investigating these issues ethnographically, doing participant observation and interviews inside men’s and women’s prisons in order to understand the forms that punishment and resistance take and the implications of each. As a sociologist, I am particularly concerned with the relationship between punishment and social inequality, and much of my work analyzes how penal regimes exacerbate race, class, and gender inequalities and undermine democratic ideals.

Listed below are my current research projects. Each are at different stages of development and completion. Click the link to learn more.


  • Prisons & Punishment
  • Sociology of Law
  • Sociology of Gender
  • Sociology of Race
  • Ethnography & Qualitative Methods

Current Research Projects

  • The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children

    For a general overview of parental incarceration and its impact on kids, check out my talk on the Academic Minute podcast.

    Over the last three decades, the number of children experiencing the incarceration of a parent has grown dramatically and in lock step with increases in the size of the adult prison population. Research on parental incarceration finds that children are adversely impacted across multiple domains: academic, behavioral, economic, psychological, medical, and legal. For example, children with an incarcerated parent are at considerably higher risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse, sexual assault, homelessness, incarceration, and poverty. These outcomes suggest that children are rendered vulnerable through a complex interplay of socioeconomic conditions, family dynamics, law, and penal policies. My research investigates two aspects of this. First, with Brittnie Aiello, I explore how prisons have become, for many children, a site of socialization–one that is often as influential for development as schools, community centers, and places of worship. Our research asks, how do prisons socialize the children of prisoners and what are the implications of this for kids & families? The first article from that project was  published in 2018 in Punishment & Society. We are currently at work on a second article.

    Second, I am investigating how children’s legal right of access to a parent influences prison policies and family visitation. This latter project is comparative, focusing primarily on children’s rights in European countries including Ireland, Italy, and Wales. I spent the bulk of my 2017-18 sabbatical living in Dublin and visiting prison facilities throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. This project considers whether greater rights for children and families produce different kinds of interactions between non incarcerated family members and the prison system.  I will be presenting preliminary analyses from this project at the Annual Meetings of the Law & Society Association in May 2019.

  • Prison Privatization

    In August 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to phase out contracts with private prison companies with the goal of eliminating private prisons in the federal prison system altogether. For many scholars and prisoner rights advocates, the announcement was an important step in dismantling the prison industrial complex. However, this perspective obscures the extent to which the largest for-profit prison companies have broadly diversified the services they offer to federal, state, and local municipalities and, concomitantly, the source of carceral profits.

    In a series of articles I trace the rise and growing popularity of one of the largest of these for-profit services–drug treatment. Although rehabilitation was once considered an antidote to mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, it now fuels the growth of private prison companies and serves as a bedrock of profitability, even in a time of declining prison populations.  The first article in this series, on the gendered origins of treatment for profit, was published in Contemporary Drug Problems (2017) and a second, on how private prison vendors capitalized on Realignment in California, appears in Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (2018).

  • Higher Education in Prison

    Villanova’s undergraduate degree program at SCI-Graterford, the largest maximum security prison in Pennsylvania, is one of the longest running degree programs of its kind in the country. Thirty years ago, our program was not so unique. There were nearly 800 undergraduate degree programs in state and federal prisons across the country with an enrollment of approximately 35,000 incarcerated students. Unfortunately, nearly all of these programs were eliminated in the mid-1990s with the passage of federal legislation that dropped Pell funding for incarcerated students. In 2016, the Obama administration reintroduced Pell grants on a pilot basis to several colleges and universities offering prison-based postsecondary education programs, including Villanova. The pilot program is funded through 2020 and there are pending bipartisan proposals to formally reinstate Pell Grant access for incarcerated students.

    This research project investigates the impact of prison-based higher education programs across multiple domains.  The first article from this study (with Robert DeFina) identifies benefits beyond reductions in recidivism that accrue from higher education programs in prison with a particular focus on community building and participatory democracy. Our (2019) article is available at the open access journal, Critical Education.