John Eason examines issues of how race and place matter

Interview with Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs John Eason about his research and his recent book, "Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto & Prison Proliferation."

John Eason is the Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and an MPP from the University of Chicago. Before pursuing his doctorate, he was a political organizer for then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama. He was also a community organizer focusing on housing and criminal justice issues. Eason is the author of Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto & Prison Proliferation (University of Chicago Press, 2017). 

What drew you to come to the Watson Institute? 

I felt that Watson offers me a great deal of flexibility with my research. With my background in planning and public policy, I appreciate Watson’s welcoming and open environment, and I believe the research I’ve already done complements Watson’s mission. What’s exciting for me here is being able to return to my early career approach to interdisciplinary work that inspired me to focus on community, health, race, and punishment.

While many political scientists and economists ask policy questions from a quantitative perspective–these questions often focus on efficiency. As a sociologist, I also focus on these questions, but I am also centered on issues of equity–who wins and who loses. I evaluate how people and groups within places and institutions are winning or losing based on any specific policy decision. I use both quantitative and qualitative data when I focus on towns, cities, and counties and evaluate how stratification occurs within those entities and within public and private prison facilities within those towns, cities, and counties.  

You’ve taught at several venues before coming to Brown University. Tell us about your MPA teaching responsibilities at the Watson Institute.

In the MPA program, I’ll focus on methods, particularly how qualitative methods focused on equity can help us expand how we understand efficiency. I enjoy putting together research teams to tackle very difficult questions that haven’t been explored; I always hope to find an innovative policy intervention in this process. 

What research initiatives will you focus on here? 

I’m currently working on my book project, Bringing Down the Big House. I was recently awarded a large grant from the National Science Foundation that will help fund this research. The project will explore the relationships between historical racial regimes and the prison boom, investigate the relationship between the modern political economy of places and private/public prison facility openings during the prison boom and investigate the impact of building public and private prisons across rural and urban communities.  

In addition, I’ll be involved with the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) on research initiatives like the historical injustice and democracy cluster. These joint clusters between CSSJ and Watson address the historical injustices of colonialism and racial slavery.

Given my continued collaboration with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I plan to reach out to The Warren Alpert School of Medicine and Brown’s School of Public Health to examine access and quality of cancer-related health care across rural communities. I will continue work that examines how race and place matter in terms of healthcare access, delivery, and outcomes. 

Tell us about your book, 'Big House on the Prairie.' 

In 2007, after completing a quantitative analysis examining every prison built in the U.S. during the 1990s, I moved my family from Chicago to rural Forrest City, Arkansas to understand why the town wanted a prison. Prior to entering the field, I had run a quantitative analysis showing that the South was three times more likely to open a prison during the height of the ‘90s prison boom than any other region in the U.S. 

Big House on the Prairie answers the question of why America built so many prisons in rural communities and the impact these facilities had on those communities. Since 1970, America has tripled the total number of facilities, adding more than 1,000 new prisons to the landscape. While the building boom has taken place nationwide, it is largely concentrated in rural Southern towns.

By taking us into the decision-making meetings and tracking the impact of prisons on economic development, poverty, and race, Big House on the Prairie demonstrates how/why groups of elite whites and black leaders in racially diverse communities lobby for prison construction.

How do you engage students in your research? 

I already work with political scientists, geographers, and a number of graduate and undergraduate students across several campuses.  At Brown, I will use Watson and CSSJ as a base from which to do so. At every institution I’ve been at, I have worked with undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs and assistant professors to mentor them and help them get published.  I’m willing to engage students who have research interests and skill sets that are complementary to my varied research projects.