Meet the Fellows: 2017 Newcombe Fellow Cyrus O’Brien

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2017 class of Fellows includes Cyrus O’Brien, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. Mr. O’Brien describes his path towards his research focus:

When people ask me how I came to study prisons and mass incarceration, I usually don’t know what to tell them. Part of it is surely embedded in my personal history. Like most Americans, I have friends and family members who have been incarcerated; less typically, my mother is a civil rights attorney. But in many respects I feel that my involvement in the criminal justice system is itself a product of mass incarceration and the fight against it.

In college, knew that I wanted to work for racial and social justice, but had no specific direction in mind. After graduating, I was lucky to land a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center working for juvenile justice reform in Alabama and Florida. In retrospect, I had had inklings of how mass incarceration affected families, but it was through this work that my view of American society took shape. I visited juvenile lockup facilities and talked to the children incarcerated there; I met their families and saw the hole a child’s absence leaves in a home; and I collaborated with judges, probation officers, and juvenile prison administrators to reduce the number of children locked up. One of the things that struck me most during this work was that many judges and policymakers were well-meaning and sincerely believed that children would “get the help they needed” while incarcerated. My experiences in advocacy and activism also pointed me toward the study of religion. I saw the ways institutional administrators encouraged religious devotion—for a time, televisions in Florida’s juvenile prisons could be tuned only to Christian networks. And I was struck by role religion played in the lives of many incarcerated people: in their telling, religion sometimes served as an avenue for self-reflection and self-formation.

These early experiences profoundly impacted not only my graduate work, but also my life trajectory. I see signs of mass incarceration all around me. I pass prisoner transport vans on the highway. I encounter prison work crews in parks and on roads. I recognize the probationers on their way to pay they monthly fees. And the glint of razor wire catches my eye almost every time I leave campus. A central purpose of my dissertation is to uncover prisons’ connections to society, to show how——through institutions like probation and parole, networks of religious volunteers and halfway house administrators, and traffic in religious ideas——prisons reach deep into American society.

Mr. O’Brien’s dissertation title is Faith in Imprisonment: Religion and the Development of Mass Incarceration in Florida. For more information on the 2017 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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