Kristin Turney

More than 10 million people are confined in U.S. jails each year. This figure represents the majority of the total U.S. incarcerated population, yet little research exists to understand their experience.

“The majority of individuals in jails haven’t been convicted of any crime and are instead awaiting adjudication of their case, often times awaiting trial and unable to make bail,” says Kristin Turney, UCI Dean’s Professor of sociology. “This can be quite destabilizing, leading to job loss, housing instability, and strained relationships with family members.”

Through research, she’s working to bring these encounters with - and consequences of - the criminal legal system to light. Her efforts and her work more broadly to illuminate social inequality and the institutions that exacerbate it have been recognized with her selection as this year’s Academic Senate Distinguished Mid-Career Faculty Award for Research recipient.

“Kristin Turney in every way is one of UCI’s best and brightest - with staggering research accomplishments, boatloads of honors and awards, and enormous public impact on marginalized communities,” says David John Frank, UCI sociology professor and chair. “She is an exemplary researcher who leverages her work to the benefit of her students and the wider community, and I can think of no one more deserving of this award.”

Turney joined the UCI sociology faculty in 2011 and has since, working alongside multiple interdisciplinary collaborators, racked up more than $6.6 million to study stressors that create, maintain, and intensify social inequality. Her work, funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Endowment for the Humanities, W. T. Grant Foundation, and others, has brought awareness to understudied populations and explored spillover effects of punitive policies on family health and well-being. Her findings are published in more than 100 scholarly pieces in some of the top journals in social sciences, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, American Sociological Review, Social Forces, and more.

“Her research program is animated by the insight that an event like incarceration affects not only the individual who is sent to prison, but also that person’s family and broader community,” explain fellow UCI sociologists Rachel Goldberg, associate professor, and Paul Hanselman, associate professor. “Her work marshals both quantitative and qualitative data, in many cases novel data she has collected herself, to trace these wider-reaching and longer-lasting impacts of imprisonment. In doing so, she’s expanded the national conversation by calling attention to the collateral damage wrought by mass incarceration.”

The topic is something she’s passionately pursued since her days as a sociology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she collaborated with a mentor to study housing mobility among underrepresented populations in Chicago and Baltimore. During interviews with residents who were asked to describe barriers to accessible housing, conversations frequently turned to experience with incarceration and encounters with the cities’ legal system.

“I realized that the interview guide didn’t ask people questions about police contact or time spent in jail or prison, yet it came up in almost every interview,” she says. “People would say they had a son, a husband or another family member who had been incarcerated and explain how it affected their lives.”

To Turney, who’d grown up in a law enforcement family, something clicked.

“It became clear that these experiences were on par with other well-studied factors like substance use and poverty that we were looking at that create negative outcomes for individuals and families,” she says. “Yet as social scientists, we were really missing part of the story; there was this huge institution that was permeating families, and I wanted to understand it further.”

After completing her Ph.D., she spent two years diving into the topic as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Michigan where she further defined her trajectory as a researcher. She’s currently bringing together more than a decade of findings to comprise her first book on the long-term, generational impacts of incarceration on individuals and their families. Tentatively titled, What Doing Time Does to Families: Incarceration and Family Inequality in the United States, the work homes in on family-level data to explain which units are most affected, stressed, and/or resilient to incarceration’s negative impacts.

Another project she’s working on focuses specifically on the effects jail time has on individuals and their families. Due to frequent turnover and localalized, county-level operations, systematic studies of experiences in jail are hard to track.

“The reality is that we just don’t know a lot about what time spent in jail is like on a more comprehensive scale,” Turney says. UCI has invested seed funding for her and collaborators to develop a research center focused on filling this knowledge gap.

Turney is also part of an interdisciplinary team that began looking at mortality in prisons and jails during the height of COVID as the death toll among incarcerated individuals rose considerably. They are now continuing to look at overall mortality rates among these institutions and finding, again, that very little is known collectively about who is dying in prisons and jails, and why.

“There is no systematic reporting of total deaths in U.S. prisons or jails. There’s no real public accountability,” she says.

She notes that data doesn’t appear to be actively hidden, rather a lack of reporting requirements and infrastructure means figures are not readily accessible. As a result, her team relies on public records requests to paint an accurate picture of prison mortality. Their digging during the pandemic uncovered some grim realities that led to the creation of an oral history project - PrisonPandemic - that’s captured thousands of firsthand accounts via letters and phone calls from dozens of facilities across the state documenting COVID’s impact on incarcerated individuals. Hosted publicly online (and eventually through Special Collections & Archives at UCI Libraries), the data repository will include more than 4,000 stories of the pandemic experiences of incarcerated individuals.

“We started this project because terrible things were happening in prisons during COVID,” she says. “People couldn’t communicate with their families, so we saw this as a way to share their stories.”

She recently received additional funding to develop an online class guided by the project, allowing her to expand her reach to a new audience of undergraduates interested in using oral history and archival methods to elevate the stories of underserved and understudied populations. The course adds to her growing teaching portfolio which also includes undergraduate and graduate classes on families and intimate relationships; medical sociology; and inequality in contemporary U.S. families.

“A striking feature of professor Turney’s work is that it brings together a large corps of graduate and undergraduate student assistants, and it in turn provides them with research participation, publication opportunities, and financial support,” says Frank. “The line between teaching and research is blurred in Turney’s hands, in an ideal Humboldtian way.”

For Turney, it’s all about transparency. The same underlying sense of social responsibility that permeates her work drives the urgency and passion with which she pursues it, from the projects she takes on to the teams she brings together and trains to help tackle the topic.

“I hope that my work can help build awareness of how common and incredibly consequential encounters with the criminal legal system are and help guide policy-based solutions to fix critical breakdowns.”

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences

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