After a sustained increase in the incarceration rate, the prison and jail population of the United States is now more than seven times higher than in the early 1970s. The growth in incarceration rates was produced by a transformation of sentencing policy and a new emphasis on incapacitation and deterrence as the main purposes of punishment. As incarceration rates have now started to decline slightly, a new conversation has started about alternatives to incarceration and continuing reductions in prison and jail populations. Research at the Justice Lab examines the consequences of high incarceration rates, intersections between incarceration and other social problems, conditions of extreme confinement, and how incarceration rates might be reduced to promote public safety and justice.

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Rikers Island Longitudinal Study

The NYRS serves as a pilot study for the Rikers Island Longitudinal Study (RILS) – a panel study of New Yorkers who are facing a new criminal charge (N=700). Currently, in the development stage, the RILS asks: How do race, poverty, and related vulnerabilities shape pretrial outcomes? By working in collaboration Emily Wang’s Health Justice Lab (Yale School of Medicine), the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and additional city agencies, the RILS aims to produce policy-relevant findings for reducing the jail population, particularly in the areas of racial disparity, repeated incarceration, and incarceration for those with mental illness, addiction, and housing insecurity.

Pennsylvania Solitary Study

The Pennsylvania Solitary Study (PASS) is a unique, mixed-methods interview study of 117 men incarcerated in a solitary confinement unit (called a Restricted Housing Unit or RHU) in a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. Men incarcerated in this unit are locked in their cells for 23 hours each day, often for months and sometimes for years at a time. It is a collaborative study led by Bruce Western and Jessica Simes (Boston University), and data collection included a panel survey, qualitative interviews, a neurocognitive test and administrative records on criminal history. Respondents were first interviewed within two months of admission to the RHU, and a follow-up interview was conducted three months later, with a re-interview rate of 91 percent. Three-quarters of respondents had been released from solitary confinement at the time of follow-up, and about 10 percent had been released from prison, allowing an investigation of the process of reentry from a period of extreme confinement. Additional survey and semi-structured interviews were conducted with correctional officers (N=22) who worked in the solitary confinement unit, and a large state-wide administrative dataset was also assembled to study post-release outcomes.

The PASS aims to understand how harsh conditions of confinement may affect health and well-being for incarcerated populations, identify the effects of solitary confinement on social and economic outcomes after prison release, and describe the conditions of living and working in high levels of custody in a large U.S. prison system.

Resources on Incarceration

Prepared by committee chair Jeremy Travis, vice-chair Bruce Western, and an interdisciplinary committee of leading scholars, the National Research Council report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, provides the first comprehensive assessment of research on how we got to such a high incarceration rate and its impact on the population. The report recommends that incarceration rates be significantly reduced, that prison conditions be closely monitored to ensure the rights and dignity of those incarcerated, and that social policy be buttressed to adjust to community needs in a climate of reduced prison populations.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn. 2014.