Nearly 100,000 Pennsylvanians are under correctional control, earning the state an incarceration rate above the national average–and well above the rate seen in most countries around the world, including Russia. What this means for Philadelphians is the subject of a spring course offered through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and taught by Lisa Servon, Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of city and regional planning, that brought together students from Weitzman, the School of Social Policy and Practice, and the Wharton School.
Servon has been researching the links between mass incarceration, financial “citizenship”, and criminal justice since 2018. For The Carceral State, as the course is titled, she asked students to use qualitative and quantitative data to bring attention to the lived experiences of hundreds of Philadelphia families. The syllabus combines readings, asset mapping, spatial data mapping, and community engagement to suggest how people have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
One of the most dramatic findings is just how disproportionately the rate of incarceration is felt in certain neighborhoods, where it has also impeded equitable development. In Philadelphia, five of the city’s 86 zip codes pay 30 percent of bail money collected. Of those five, Servon and her students focused on zip code 19124, which encompasses the Frankford neighborhood in north Philadelphia.
Servon notes that it can be a challenge to do this kind of work with integrity because of the constraints of time: a semester only lasts 15 weeks, and students graduate or move on to other courses. Working with people impacted by crime and poverty brings another level of responsibility. It’s why she is committed to a “community client” model, whereby she returns to the same neighborhood and people each year with a new group of students.
Historically known for its textile mills, Frankford once attracted settlers by virtue of its location close to a highway and the Frankford and Little Tacony Creeks. Today, Frankford’s population is predominantly Black and Hispanic, and more than half of its residents live in poverty. The area has high rates of unemployment and low rates of education, and its residents contend with issues of gun violence and high rates of incarceration. For example, Frankford is Philadelphia’s largest contributor to prison admissions, including repeat offenders.
Through the course, students were introduced to the Philadelphia Bail Fund (PBF), an organization that posts bail for people who cannot afford it, and Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations (Concilio), a community development corporation that originally served Philadelphia’s Latino population but has expanded its work in family welfare through youth programs and services for crime victims. The Netter Center for Community Partnerships at Penn was instrumental in facilitating the practicum’s work with Concilio and the PBF.
With the help of Concilio and six high-school students, one group of Servon’s students used asset mapping to study the Frankford neighborhood’s social infrastructure, while others used ArcGIS to spatially contextualize data on demographics and incarceration.
Another group of students, focused on community engagement, initially hoped to build on Concilio’s work with food distribution and COVID-19 testing drives, but pivoted as the semester went on because of logistical challenges. In April, the group set up a table outside a neighborhood supermarket offering donuts and gift cards to survey community members about their experiences. Using a written survey and graphic map, students recorded residents’ perceptions of safety, policing, and the legal system’s impact on their families. In these interactions, students recognized a pervading sense of hope amongst residents, who, despite living with gun violence and drug involvement in their streets and backyards, appear to be looking for opportunities of improvement.
Servon’s students also visited the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice to observe courtroom proceedings. Charlie Townsley, a Weitzman planning student who is also the teaching assistant for the course, saw 17 arraignments over separate days, where judges set an average bail of $99,400. He came away, he says, struck by the complexity of crime and punishment in the constraints of a system prone to structural racism, and the everyday negotiations of value-systems within a bureaucracy.
It wasn’t lost on Servon’s students that the implications of The Carceral State go beyond Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. They point to the need for fairer sentencing, various methods of rehabilitation, and targeted investments in communities impacted by the criminal justice system. His experience in the practicum has led Townsley to wonder, “How different might it [the U.S. criminal justice system] look if it focused on rehabilitation through the recognition of strengths and assets?”
In addition to Townsley, participating students included Kyle Arbuckle, Christopher Brzovic, Caitlin Rose Filiato, Jaylene Gutierrez, Ashley Higgens, George Kunkel, Dustin Mandell, Katharine Poor, Maha Rahman, Victoria Sansone, Marissa Sayer, Rachael Schechter, Sydney Shintani, and Rania Zakaria.