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The Prison Education Program Research Lab 

The Lab documents the financial and human costs of incarceration to amplify the knowledge and expertise of individuals and communities directly impacted by mass incarceration.

Right now we’re a small community of peer researchers doing this work, and I feel great that we’re the trailblazers, we started this incarceration research for ourselves, but it’s going to go past us. Hopefully, this research will lead to change in New York state prisons, whether they look more into the commissary costs, or child support, or the fines and fees and other penalties, like parole, that come with being incarcerated.

—Vincent Thomas, Peer Researcher

Our Lab

 

Research Team
Current Projects

Family Debt Project: We are currently working on a study of how families and communities are brought into the penal state and shaped by their relationship to it. The project analyzes the many forms of financial support families and communities provide–from commissary costs to telecommunication expenses to legal fees to child support. Based on a survey of over 500 New Yorkers who support loved ones in prison, and 200 qualitative interviews with a subsample of them, we document the stream of resources flowing from kin networks into penal institutions and its reciprocal effects on family and community life.

Abolition Labor Project

Cars and Jails Project

Cost of Commissary

Tamiment Library

Timeline of Publications

Lab Achievements
Since its 2018 launch, the Lab has conducted several research projects, resulting in a significant list of publications. These include two books, and as many as twenty articles.

The first book, Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality, published in 2022, explores all of the ways in which car ownership and use can lead to detention. In particular, it shows how the (auto) debt economy overlaps with the carceral economy.

The second book, Abolition Labor: The Fight to End Prison Slavery, published in 2024, draws heavily on the prison work experience of formerly incarcerated men and women, and chronicles the nationwide campaign to “End the Exception” in the 13th Amendment.

Our articles and opinion essays have appeared in a broad range of publications, from public media like the New York Times, The Guardian, Newsday, and the Boston Review, to scholarly journals, like South Atlantic Quarterly and Marxist Sociology, and revues of critical legal and prison studies, like Inquest and the Law and Political Economy Project. 

Lab students have produced their own visual media projects and podcasts, and have given many public presentations about their work.

Last but not least, we are proud that most of our students and researchers have graduated and found positions in other institutions and organizations.

Timeline of Lab Publications

Community Relations
The Lab is a resource for community groups and movements working on these issues. We welcome comments and connections to the work they’re doing. See Community Relations below.
Funding

Current funding:

United States Department of Education, Grant for Community Outreach and Promotion

Institute for Research on Poverty, “Familial Debt and Reentry: Barriers to Child Support Adjudication.”

 

Pending Funding:

National Science Foundation, REU Site: Research Training for Formerly Incarcerated Undergraduates

Donate
Donations for our Research Lab may be made through our parent unit, NYU’s Prison Education Program.

All donations made to our Emergency Funds will go directly to our students to support their continued education, and personal wellbeing after incarceration. Donations cover everything from:

  • relieving tuition and student debt for formerly incarcerated students to return to college,
  • to buying books and laptops for college coursework and professional development,
  • to providing metro cards for recently released students so that they can get to critical appointments,
  • to providing emergency care (i.e. clothing, food, medical, cell phones) and stable housing
Queries? Email: prison.education@nyu.edu

The NYU Prison Education Program (PEP) is a college-in-prison program that aims to expand access to higher education within communities impacted by the criminal justice system and to model how a research university can advance solutions to real-world problems. In 2018, NYU PEP formed the Research Lab, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students at NYU, to study the costs of incarceration and to generate grounded policy recommendations and advocacy initiatives around responsible decarceration in the city and state. Students with lived experiences of incarceration are hired and trained by faculty members in the methods and ethics of social science research and take part in all aspects of research, including identifying research questions, design, data collection, and dissemination. By drawing on researchers from NYC communities most affected by incarceration, the Research Lab hopes to amplify their voices and concerns and to increase communities’ capacities to respond to the effects of incarceration.

 

Lab Video

Lab Podcasts

Zach Gillespie (PEP Research Lab) talks to Briane Cornish and Gordon Davis, President and Treasurer of fINEQUITY, an organization helping those impacted by incarceration to grow their financial power.
NYU Prison Education Program’s peer researchers Derick McCarthy and Aiyuba Thomas talk to Akeel Adil, owner of Rogue Optical, about his experience starting a business after incarceration.

The Many-Headed Monster of Carceral Debt

BEFORE incarceration

• Pre-trial obligations include Bail Debt and Legal Representation
Debt. • In addition, court fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution are routinely imposed by judges on top of a criminal sentence • Failure to pay these Legal Financial Obligations (LFO) can result in detention or denial of government benefits.

DURING incarceration

• Pay-to-Stay, for room and board, is charged in many states. * Commissary Debt comes from marked-up prison goods and services necessary for survival because of the lack of nutrition in institutional food. • Phone Debt and Tablet Debt is extracted for telecommunications with loved ones. • Wage Theft is incurred from the penny wages paid for maintenance labor and industrial work programs. • Support Debt is the large financial burden borne by households that keep family members alive in prison • Transportation Debt is accrued by family members on prison visits • Child Support Debt is paid to the state, not the parent, and is a significant financial obligation during and after incarceration. • Medical Debt is accumulated for care of injuries incurred as a result of the conditions of incarceration and under-regulated workplaces.

AFTER incarceration

• Parole Debt is a routine aspect of reentry. • Private Probation Debt is owed to companies on contract with the state to supervise probation. • Post-Release Debt includes mandatory fees for electronic monitoring, drug testing and sex offender registration.• Auto Debt is accrued from subprime loans offered to borrowers whose credit was shredded during incarceration • Housing Debt is incurred from renting suboptimal accommodations on reentry. • Wage Debt accumulates from lost earnings due to market barriers for formerly incarcerated people • Emotional Debt is owed by incarcerated people to families, partners, and associates who have shouldered the costs of their incarceration.

ANYTIME

• Historic redlining of center-city neighborhoods “captured” multigenerational communities of color, resulting in the concentration of financial burdens, including Slumlord Rent Debt and Grocery Debt (from mark-ups in store credit, especially in food
deserts) • Deindustrialization and job loss forced residents to borrow in order to stay afloat, encouraging risky and illegal activities to service these Household Debts. • Over-policing of "high-crime" center-city neighborhoods generates specific financial liabilities, including State Debt, from traffic fines/surcharges and other forms of “revenue policing,” as well as Medical Debt from injuries incurred at traffic stops by armed officers.