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Faculty Spotlight on Dr. Judah Schept

Dr. Judah Schept

Broadly speaking, my work examines some of the contours of mass incarceration in the United States. I am interested in the structural processes that have given rise to and sustain the largest system of incarceration in the world. As an ethnographer, I am drawn to the everyday and embodied ways in which communities both acquiesce to and contest carceral logic and practices.

My dissertation research explored one small city’s attempt at massive carceral expansion and the discourses and politics used to both rationalize and resist it. In the community in which I conducted research, local officials rhetorically resisted mass incarceration while actively trying to expand local carceral capacities. I found this contradiction fascinating and it became the central object of my study as well as an important point of departure for theorizing the hegemony of the carceral state. In articles I have published and in my book manuscript, I argue that mass incarceration in the age of neoliberalism inscribes its logics and practices into individual and community bodies, structuring the very concept of common sense and allowing local officials to endorse carceral expansion while maintaining that they were, in fact, doing exactly the opposite. In my work, I introduce the concept of carceral habitus to discuss this embodiment of mass incarceration.

My experience with this project has informed my current research. With assistance from EKU’s School of Justice Studies Research Grant, I am conducting preliminary work examining the material and symbolic representations of incarceration in Kentucky. This research, while in its infancy, has already led me in fascinating directions: a Bed and Breakfast constructed on and in an old county jail and gallows and haunted by the ghosts of its former prisoners; Appalachian mountain towns hit hard by both the departure of capital and natural disaster and yet sporting multi-million dollar new prisons; and online and print media boasting some of the faces of crime in the eastern part of the state. Working with artist and Georgia State University professor of photography Jill Frank, my hope and intention is that this preliminary research transitions into a photo-ethnography. We are especially interested in how to examine that which isn’t there but which structures what we see and document: the ghosts of racialized regimes past that haunt our current institutions and the departed industries, jobs, and capital that have given way to prisons. Here are some images from our recent research:


Here, in the bucolic backyard of the Bed and Breakfast, visitors - "inmates" or "offenders" as the proprietors refer to their guests - are treated to an amazing breakfast in the same location where the gallows once stood.



Two business on Main St. in an Appalachian town remain devasted in the middle of the summer after a late winter tornado wreaked havoc on parts of eastern Kentucky.  The town sits between two large state prisons, one just a mile and a half outside of town.  The other sits 20 miles up the road and is the state's most recent and technologically sophisticated prison, opened in 2005.  Together, these prisons cost the state $30 million annually to operate.

To hear more of my thoughts on mass incarceration, see: where I gave an extended radio interview.

For more information about Jill Frank, see

Published on August 21, 2012

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