Brown Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

Mass Incarceration and Punishment in America

Mass Incarceration and Punishment in America Research Cluster


The United States incarcerates the world’s largest prison population, caging, surveilling and supervising more people than any other nation. “In a situation that is not only internationally unparalleled but also historically unprecedented, every day more than 2 million people are barred somewhere within this nation's vast archipelago of prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers.” In America, punishment often begins prior to conviction - through police brutality, surveillance and pretrial detention in local jails techniques enacted through violent and deadly means. 

The research cluster on “Mass Incarceration and Punishment in America” seeks to examine punishment and the U.S. carceral state through an interdisciplinary lens. We examine the origins and consequences of mass incarceration. In doing this work we operate from the frame that race and anti-Black racism are cornerstones to understanding the vast leviathan of punishment in America. 

We take an expansive approach to understanding the myriad ways that punishment is enacted by the U.S. carceral state. Central to understanding the lasting effects of mass incarceration is considering how punishment can assume many forms well beyond the traditional legal institutions tasked with enacting it. In addition to examining the features and origins of punishment, this cluster values interdisciplinary scholars - especially from the arts and humanities tradition – whose work helps us envision resistance, reform and abolition. 

We value and center those individuals (including family and community members) who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, directly. We honor the voices of people who are incarcerated and seek to innovate around how to break down the walls of U.S. jails and prisons. Through art, research, writing, performance, pedagogy and programming, we seek to build a community of scholars that includes those who are incarcerated or who have been directly impacted by incarceration. 

One of the signature programs within this research cluster is the Mass Incarceration Humanities Lab which seeks to build the largest archive of mass incarceration in America.  It will be located in the Special Collections of the John Hay Library as well as digitized by the Center for Digital Scholarship. This will be a publicly accessible repository of primary data about the punitive consequences of mass incarceration as told by defendants, their families and the larger community. In Spring of 2021, we will begin curating our first initiative entitled, Letters from Behind the Walls: Prison Life and Resilience in the U.S.  We will collaborate with instructors working inside prisons to answer a single question: What do you need the world to know about U.S. prisons? How do you imagine freedom and resilience? These questions will invite incarcerated people to reflect on the American-style confinement as they experience it as well as highlight ways that resistance and resilience is created under the conditions of mass incarceration. This national call for letters will begin January 2021 and the analysis and curation will be conducted by students at Brown University under the supervision of Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, who is the Faculty Fellow leading the research cluster on mass incarceration at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. 

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown University and an affiliated faculty with the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, IL.  Her research examines how the criminal justice system reproduces racism in policing, courts, and corrections. She is the award-winning author of the book, "Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court." Crook County won 11 awards or finalist distinctions for its contribution to the areas of sociology, law, criminal justice, media and social justice including the discipline’s highest book honor, The American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Book Prize. In the area of publishing, Crook County is a two-time Prose Award Winner (For Excellence in Law and Legal Studies and for Excellence in Social Sciences) and a Silver Medalist awarded by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. In the area of social justice, Crook County was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award in the category of “Outstanding Literary Work - Debut Author” and a Finalist for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Media for a Just Society Award.  Her new book, The Waiting Room, is part of the series The Southside from Amazon Original Stories and is a collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize–winning team at The Marshall Project. Professor Gonzalez Van Cleve’s written commentary has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, NBC News, Crain’s Chicago Business, and CNN. Her legal commentary has been featured on NPR, NBC News, CNN, and MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show.

"Mass incarceration and punishment in America is a human rights issue. In appraising the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, one needs to consider a new standard for justice: measuring the system and its legitimacy through the eyes of its consumers, be they defendants, victims, witnesses, or families. This is how we appraise and hold accountable these institutions with deep roots to slavery and racial domination; we study, we expose and we preserve the truth about racial violence in America."
-Prof. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve
Faculty Fellow Mass Incarceration and Punishment in America Research Cluster