About the Topic

Among “timely and important themes” few generate as much immediate recognition and response as mass incarceration. While the US comprises under 5% of the world’s population, it houses 22% of the world’s prison population; as of 2016, one in thirty-eight US adults was under the supervision of the correctional system.[1] The incarceration rate in New Hampshire has quadrupled since the late 1970s.[2] In the past decade scholars and artists, as well as political activists, have succeeded in drawing public attention to the burgeoning problem of mass incarceration and its historic, political, cultural, and economic causes and effects. The disproportionate use of incarceration in the US raises issues of civil rights, mental health, law, rehabilitation and recidivism, family life, and human dignity. The question of criminality stretches beyond a crime and its punishment. Its effects extend both forward in time (e.g., after incarceration, convicts face discrimination, continued monitoring, public registries, and the permanent loss of rights, as well as physical and psychological marks left by punishment) and backwards (some groups encounter a presumption of criminality that can contribute to actual crime).

In order to address this daunting public issue, our series proposes to focus on the people who are most affected by it. At the center of mass incarceration is a question: “What is a criminal?”Which people do we deem such a threat to society that they must be removed from it? Who can legally be deprived of fundamental rights—to an extent that, some argue, approaches enslavement? Once placed in this group, can a person reintegrate into the broader society? What can be done to keep people from becoming criminals? To productively engage these questions requires a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on work in the humanities and social sciences as well as behavioral health. It also demands a collaboration that transcends the academy, putting researchers in conversation with the practitioners and public servants who are adjusting their working definitions of “criminal” in real time.

This series builds on a 2015 “Enduring Questions” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which enabled the creation of a pilot course with the title “What Is a Criminal?


[1] US Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217; World Prison Population List, 11th Edition. 2016: http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/world_prison_population_list_11th_edition_0.pdf; Danielle Kaeble and Mary Cowhig, “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016,” US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2018. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus16.pdf

[2] Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/NH_prison_jail_rate_1978-2015.html

“John Michael Gill – New Prints – Faces”by Angels Gate is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0