Robert Riggs: Urban Anthropology and Mass Incarceration

Robert Riggs
Urban Anthropology and Mass Incarceration

B.A. January 2012, Summa cum Laude
Home College: John Jay
Mentor: Prof. Ric Curtis, Anthropology, John Jay
Thomas W. Smith Academic Fellowship
Vera Institute of Justice Fellowship
Dean’s List

“The unprecedented rise in the number of people confined in America’s prisons and jails constitutes one of the most pressing social issues facing society today,” wrote Robert Riggs in his application to CUNY BA. At that time and still now, he is a research associate with the Bard Prison Initiative, a program offering college coursework and degrees to prisoners in five New York Prisons, under the auspices of Bard College, one of the few remaining in-prison college programs since the 1994 withdrawal of federal funding for prisoner education. Riggs’ goal has been to use social science methods, particularly ethnography, to develop powerful data about mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on certain populations, and to shed light on how “people, families and communities actually live incarceration and the cycle of imprisonment and reentry that has become its stock-in-trade,” he writes.

Riggs was a transfer student at John Jay when he heard about CUNY BA. Just prior to his acceptance he’d learned that an article he wrote on employing prisoners re-entering society had been accepted for publication in the journal Dialectical Anthropology. At John Jay, he became a work study student in the Anthropology department, and although he was only assigned 7 hours of work a week, he regularly put in 25 hours a week instead, organizing and analyzing data for two major federally-funded studies, among other projects. With his mentor, Prof. Curtis, he helped complete a research project on violence against undocumented immigrants in Hempstead, Long Island. Together they co-authored other articles and writings that have been or are slated to be published, including one on the “War on Drugs” and its impact on Latino communities. He completed a number of research courses and Independent Studies, covering topics such as teen prostitution in Atlantic City, the use of medical marijuana in Rhode Island, gang violence in large cities, and the market for methamphetamine in NYC.

Riggs has been accepted to the Ph.D. program in Sociology at NYU, with a five-year Henry McCracken Fellowship.  He says, “CUNY BA was crucial to my success in being accepted into graduate school. The degree freed me to build upon what I had already learned and to work with my faculty mentor to construct a curriculum that was extremely meaningful to me; it gave me the flexibility to couple my coursework with Independent Studies and to participate in undergraduate research that led to co-authorships on final technical reports and on a publication in an international, peer-reviewed journal. I am entering graduate school with the goal of conducting an ethnography of a New York City neighborhood with a high rate of incarcerated residents. This project will hopefully constitute my dissertation research. I will be able to do it thanks to the solid foundation I gained in CUNY BA.”