Heath Pearson, MDiv ’13, is one of 21 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellows.
The Newcombe award of $25,000 will fund the final year of his dissertation, “Carceral Outside,” an ethnographic and archival examination of the cultural, economic, and political impact that five prisons and a highly militarized police force have had on Cliptown, a rural town in southern New Jersey. His research explores the ways that the structure of a town – specifically who owns the land, how it is used, and other economic factors – maintains racism, sexism, classism, and other hegemonic powers over time.
Pearson grew up in rural Indiana, and after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2013, began pursuing graduate degrees in anthropology and African American studies at Princeton University.
“I lived in a rural town in South Jersey for a year and a half that has five correctional facilities, four prisons and a jail, in a town of 25,000 people,” he says.
His work included detailed land histories of the places where the prisons are located, looking at what that land had been used for over the past 200 years, and examining “how ordering the land in a particular way allows for particular kinds of racism, particular kinds of labor regimes, to be possible in that space.”
“The manuscript is anchored by a detailed history of each prison site, beginning in the late 18th century and moving up to the present, and is bolstered by a chronicle of family and life histories based on more than 200 ethnographic interviews,” he said. One example he cites is of a formerly incarcerated man who lives in a home his grandmother purchased on the outskirts of Cliptown with money she saved from her work as a farmhand and factory worker. In 1985, the land surrounding the home was sold to the city for construction of a prison. Pearson says land that once represented a promise of freedom for the family today threatens a future of incarceration for the family.
Using life histories like this, Pearson documents “how specific land is repeatedly enclosed, divided, and put to new use across 250 years of capital accumulation.” “When land changes from ‘unused’ to agriculturally productive, to industrial, to carceral, the laborers change with it: from indigenous genocide and African (American) slavery, to Japanese-American ‘internees’ in labor camps during WWII, to prison labor and devalued laborers with felonies, to undocumented agricultural workers.”
Laborers, he says, during these changing eras can signify and possibly foment social-cultural divisions especially along lines of race/ethnicity and sex/gender. “Thus, market democracy continually reproduces the division of laborers it requires to sustain itself,” Pearson says.
Pearson plans to complete his research and dissertation in 2019 at Princeton University.