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Michael Gibson-Light

Michael is an Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminology at the University of Denver specializing in the study of punishment, work, and culture. He investigates these using ethnography, a research method that involves systematically observing and participating in the social phenomena being studied. Through this method, he has participated in the routines of groups as diverse as dumpster divers, independent hip-hop artists, migrant day laborers, and – most recently – prison laborers.

Michael's current book, under contract with Oxford University Press, examines lived experiences of prison life and labor. Following 18 months of ethnographic research in a US state prison complex where he worked alongside imprisoned workers, it explores the structure and practices of work behind bars. In so doing, it documents the reproduction of social inequalities in this setting.


Recent work explores a shift from tobacco products to foods like ramen noodles as informal prison currency in the underground economy of US state prisons. Early findings were reported on in the Guardian, Washington Post, BBC, NPR, the Atlantic, Time, US News & World Report, and over 100 other reputable news outlets.

Michael's current book project draws on ethnographic fieldwork within a US state prison as well as over 80 in-depth interviews with prisoners and institutional staff members to explore the practices, strategies, and outlooks of carceral laborers as they navigate the world of prison work.