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Robert Riggs

College: CUNY Baccalaureate Degree
Awards: Summa cum Laude, 2013; Summa cum Laude, 2012

Unlocking Ex-Inmates' Social Ties

It seems logical to assume that people who come out of prison and build strong social networks are more likely to stay out of prison than those whose social ties are weak, but what makes a strong social network?

Robert Riggs (CUNY B.A., summa cum laude, in urban anthropology and mass incarceration, 2012), who is working toward a doctorate in sociology at New York University, intends to answer that question with a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This three-year, $126,000 award is the most prestigious grant for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“Social networks are the resources we use, from the family and friends we rely on for emotional support to the acquaintances we use for getting information about things like jobs and apartments,” he says. “I’m interested in how people coming out of prison build their social networks after release.”

Riggs, who received a five-year Henry MacCracken Fellowship at NYU, plans to follow a group of people over time, interviewing them periodically to see how their social networks form and change and assessing whether there are differences between those who stay out of prison and those who are return there.

“There also will be an ethnographic component, so I’ll be hanging out with people to get to know how they use their network ties in their everyday lives,” he says.

He did his undergraduate anthropological work at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where anthropology chair Ric Curtis was his mentor.

“I learned how to do research and had the opportunity to participate in large, nationally funded research projects as an undergraduate,” he says. “That was invaluable for getting into a Ph.D. program and getting this NSF grant.”

He helped Curtis with research on prostitution in Atlantic City and co-authored final technical reports for projects dealing with violence against undocumented immigrants in Hempstead, Long Island, and methamphetamine markets in New York City.

In independent studies, he learned how to write major grant applications, assisting professors with preparing research proposals to look at medical marijuana markets in Rhode Island and gang structure in several large cities.

In a project funded by the Centers for Disease Control, he worked as part of a team collecting data on identifying behavioral risks for HIV infection. During two cycles of this research, Riggs and team members interviewed and HIV-tested more than 1,000 people. His work in the Anthropology Department led to a publication in an international, peer-reviewed journal, Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

With an undergraduate Vera Institute of Justice Fellowship, he worked at Vera on reform of the harsh Rockefeller drug laws.

He looks forward to a career in academia, but for now, he’ll be busy collecting social network data and trying to answer his research questions.