White Paper on Emory Engagement with Incarceration in Georgia

In Georgia, 95,000 individuals are in prisons or jails and 4,000 in immigration detention on any given day. Georgia has the fourth largest state prison system in the U.S.—only California, Texas, and Florida have larger systems. The state also has the fourth largest immigration detention system, behind Texas, California, and Arizona. A particular challenge for Georgia is the number of persons under parole and probation. Strikingly, Georgia ranks as the state with the highest percentage of its population under community correctional supervision (which includes probation and parole as well as incarceration). The South is noteworthy not only for its role in mass incarceration, but for its paucity of institutional support for systems-impacted people. Members of the Emory community want to help to change this. Addressing the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S. has become a bi-partisan initiative, and Emory, as an eminent research and teaching institution in Georgia, is situated to take a leading role in the movement in the South to create a more humane justice system.

We believe that, through an intentional institutional approach to the problem of mass incarceration, it is possible to increase Emory’s profile and involvement in ways critical to the 4th Pillar of Emory’s Strategic Framework: Atlanta as Gateway to the World:

By building on this connection, Emory’s students and faculty solve the most pressing issues of our time in a community that embraces diversity and dialogue. In innumerable ways, we draw strength from Atlanta and add to its richness.

A growing number of faculty and graduate students from various schools and departments are researching, writing, and teaching about the criminal justice system and its impact on society. Particularly significant are their creative multidimensional involvements, where research, teaching, and community engagement combine to engage the justice issues at stake. 

For example:

  • Emory faculty and students, already involved in this work, have been meeting for the past 2 years, and the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE) sponsored an Academic Learning Community on Mass Incarceration in the South during Spring 2019 convened by Jennifer Sarrett, James L. Hughes, and Donna Troka. This ALC, which had twenty-five applicants, had participants from every school on campus.
  • Brenda Baker, Assistant Professor in the Nursing School works with incarcerated pregnant women providing prenatal education, doula labor support, and postpartum support for women at Lee Arrendale Prison. She also participated in H.B. 345 passage that prevents shackling pregnant women during labor and has been deeply involved with Motherhood Beyond Bars, an Atlanta 501c3 organization that serves pregnant women incarcerated at Helms Facility. Motherhood Beyond Bars was founded by Bethany Kotlar, and MPH graduate of the Rollins School of Public Health.
  • Elizabeth Bounds, Associate Professor in the School of Theology is researching the ways women in prison understand a good life, drawing upon both ethnographic research and her years administering a certificate program in theological studies at the Lee Arrendale Prison for Women, where numerous Emory masters and PhD students have taught.
  • Stacy Bell McQuaide, Professor of Pedagogy at Oxford College, takes undergraduate students into Georgia prisons for collaborative classes; she is adjunct faculty in Life University’s Chillon Project, a bachelor’s degree program at Arrendale Prison. She serves in the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, a consortium project to place faculty in degree programs in Georgia prisons.
  • Michael Leo Owens, Associate Professor of Political Science in Emory College, studies the political consequences of incarceration.
  • Jennifer Sarrett, Lecturer in the Center for the Study of Human Health in Emory College, does research on intellectual and developmental disabilities in criminal justice.
  • Anne Spaulding, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health, has published over 80 articles on the links between criminal justice and public heath over the past two decades. She is a practicing physician who has engaged in patient care in both the jail and prison settings.

This is just a small sample of scholarly activists that help to foster a culture of eminence in relation to work on equity and justice. The work of other faculty and students are highlighted on a new website dedicated to bringing these scholars together. These faculty members are not only committed to enriching and engaging the Emory community, they are also dedicated to doing transformative national and international work on mass incarceration and justice-involved communities (which aligns with the first pillar of the One Emory framework) by highlighting the innovative and internationally-recognized justice involvement work happening across campus.

This is one reason members of Justice Involvement @ Emory were among the first to be contacted by those organizing a meeting between campus leaders and organizers with the Reform Alliance, whose mission is to significantly reduce the number of people on probation and parole. The goal of this meeting was to identify faculty that could help the Reform Alliance do research for their project in Georgia; a more important outcome was bringing together faculty and staff from Atlanta colleges and universities doing justice involvement work. We have created a cross institutional collective that includes Emory University, Georgia State University, University of Georgia, Morehouse College, Life University, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Justice Involvement @ Emory meets monthly to discuss research and community events and takes “field trips” to relevant organizations. In Fall 2019, faculty, staff and students toured the Metro Re-entry Facility, discussing partnerships wherein Emory faculty and students can provide needed programming. We are in conversation with the Metro administration about offering courses inside; they have expressed a critical need for African American Studies. In January 2020, a group from Emory met with lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). We have committed to connect their attorneys to Emory faculty and graduate students who may serve as “experts” in court cases and policy documents.

Elevating the important and diverse justice involvement scholarship and practice at Emory will make it a destination university for emerging scholars in the area. Given Atlanta is the capital of a state with extraordinarily high rates of criminal justice supervision as well as a critical location in our nation’s history of enslavement, Jim Crow, and civil rights, Emory is situated in an environment that lends itself to this work. We are surrounded by powerful and effective organizations working in justice involvement with which the Emory community can and do collaborate. From diverting people from justice involvement, to improving policing practices, to working towards more humane incarceration experiences and successful re-entry practices, Emory faculty are at the frontlines of the nationwide, bipartisan movement to reform our criminal justice system. We would like to meet with senior leadership to begin a conversation about how Emory University can both codify and support the essential, ground-breaking work in our community of scholars to have a deeper impact and further reach. With your support, our group can continue to grow in size and influence to increase our local, national, and international profile.