Professor’s Research on Mass Incarceration Informs Documentary, Museum Exhibit

November 30, 2016

After studying the origins and politics of mass incarceration, Marie Gottschalk has taken her research one step further by introducing the idea of a “carceral state” with millions of people in prison, on probation or on parole who are still “detained” through monitoring. 

A professor of political science, Gottschalk specializes in American politics, with an emphasis on criminal justice, health policy, race, and the development of the welfare state. She has taught at Penn since 1997. 

Her research intrigued filmmaker Ava DuVernay and led to Gottschalk’s appearance in “13th,” a Netflix documentary about mass incarceration that refers to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, but left a fairly exploitable loophole: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” 

Gottschalk was one of about 30 academics, historians, activists and politicians included in the documentary, the first of that genre to open the New York Film Festival. 

In “13th,” DuVernay chronicles the history of mass incarceration and how it is permitted under the Constitution, outlining the ways in which political strategies have contributed to the situation and uncovering how large prison populations have created billion-dollar industries. 

The documentary also focuses on the racial and economic dimensions, but Gottschalk explained there are other important considerations, too. 

“We have to frame mass incarceration not just in racial terms but to see how racial factors coincide and interact with other factors,” Gottschalk says. “Mass incarceration controls a dispossessed population. While originally directed at African-Americans, can this carceral state and these controlling conditions be migrating to include other marginalized populations, too?” 

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