Jessica Simes has always known that data can tell a story. As a grad student interning at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, she analyzed the zip codes of the last known addresses imprisoned people gave when they were admitted. It revealed something startling.

When Simes arrived at Boston University as a faculty member, she found the opportunity to build on that analysis, spending the next eight years investigating the shifting geography of mass incarceration—specifically in Massachusetts, but with a pattern replicated across the country—and its consequences for Black and Latinx communities. The result is a data-driven narrative, previously ignored or untold by scholars and researchers, called Punishing Places: The Geography of Mass Imprisonment (University of California Press, 2021). Applying a spatial analysis to mass incarceration, Simes demonstrates that our highest imprisonment rates are now in populations from small cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

“Rather than just punishing individuals,” Simes writes, “the American system of incarceration has been punishing neighborhoods on a globally and historically unprecedented scale.”

Simes sees the reduction of prisons and excessive police contact, as well as a more serious role for reparative justice, as a means to restore the fabric of neighborhoods damaged by incarceration and ameliorate impacts such as health disparities and the persistence of poverty.

“When you take whole groups of people out of a community, that has ripple effects through the places in which people find connection and build families,” Simes says. “How can we expect these communities to thrive under those huge losses?”