Grant TypeDissertation Fieldwork Grant
Institutional AffiliationPrinceton U.
Grant numberGr. 9266
Approve DateApril 11, 2016
Project TitlePearson, William H., Princeton U., Princeton, NJ - To aid research on 'The Porosity of Prisons: An Ethnography of Citizenship and Security in Rural New Jersey,' supervised by Dr. Joao Biehl
HEATH PEARSON, then a graduate student at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, received funding in April 2016 to aid research on “The Porosity of Prisons: An Ethnography of Citizenship and Security in Rural New Jersey,” supervised by Dr. Joao Biehl. This dissertation is based on two years of ethnographic research in Bridgeton, New Jersey, a rural town with a county jail, a state prison, and a federal prison. It focuses on the world outside of these correctional facilities, bringing the examination of incarceration out of the realm of federal policies and onto the ground. The dissertation is anchored by an archival unearthing of land deeds that details how each unit of land came to be a prison site, and by a chronicle of family and life histories based on more than two hundred ethnographic interviews and eighteen months of participant observation. Mass incarceration has been primarily understood as a federal response to deindustrialization driven by a racist backlash to expanded civil rights. The research reframes the longue durée of the U.S. carceral project by showing that long before the prisons were sited, the town was practicing “carceral governance,” a theory the grantee is developing to illuminate how racialized practices of surveillance, segregation, and containment both enforces conformity and engenders dissent. The study analyzes the many dimensions of governance that cut across local-federal and public-private distinctions and offer an understanding of the impact federal policies can have on local democratic practice and daily life. The research foregrounds how formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated residents become political activists, and how they come to articulate their ethical understanding of self, community, and rights alongside the daily struggle for economic survival and social mobility—all within the context of deindustrialization police violence, and a prison boom. From this perspective, mass incarceration is not simply a way to describe an acute federal crisis within American democracy. Rather, mass incarceration appears as only the current iteration within a much longer carceral, democratic project implemented over time and with collaboration between local, state, and federal realms.