In 2018 a small group of students and faculty from the NYU PEP began research on the relationship between debt and incarceration in New York City. Our project has two goals. First, we seek to make visible and contribute to knowledge around an extremely corrosive dynamic within the current system of mass incarceration – the debt trap. Incarcerated persons are increasingly compelled to pay for their institutionalization through an extensive system of fees and fines, as well as through the privatization of basic services, including basic legal representation. The result is that many fall into a debt trap upon release into vulnerable urban neighborhoods, which unsurprisingly are rife with myriad forms of predatory lending. The fiscal burden is borne by an extended network of (mainly female) kin who support incarcerated loved ones through a broken legal and institutional system, and that this criminal justice debt operates as a second punishment on urban neighborhoods, amplifying the debt trap.
Second, we are developing research skills among our students in the hopes of amplifying and extending the reach of their insights. Our study is organized around the work of student-researchers drawn from the PEP community. When subjects who are traditionally investigated become the investigators, they can help to devise methods that bring to light new data and raise new and necessary questions. This has already been the case with PEP Debt. Our student researchers, trained in techniques and ethics of social science research have been conducting interviews and fiscal assessments among formerly incarcerated subjects and their family members and neighborhood associates to map out the community footprint of carceral debt.
Thuy Linh Tu, Associate Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis, email@example.com