Gwen Smith, a criminology and criminal justice major at UMSL, received a research grant from UMSL’s College of Arts and Sciences in the spring to study incarceration trends. (Photo by August Jennewein)

University of Missouri–St. Louis criminology student Gwen Smith views research as an exciting challenge.

“The research process has been kind of like a treasure hunt,” Smith said. “A lot of leads have gone nowhere, but some have uncovered real gems. When you do find something useful, it’s a fun ‘ah ha moment.'”

Smith, who is majoring in criminology and criminal justice, minoring in psychology and a student in the Pierre Laclede Honors College at UMSL, was one of nine undergraduate students to receive a $1,000 research grant from UMSL’s College of Arts and Sciences in the spring.

She transferred to UMSL two years ago and began working as a research assistant for Michael Campbell, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMSL.

“I’ve been interested in prison rights since high school,” said Smith who became very interested in Campbell’s research, which focuses on how state politics are related to the rise of incarceration.

“Gwen truly represents the very best in what undergraduate students can be,” Campbell said. “She is intellectually curious, creative and a hard worker. The first time I interacted with her in class she asked a question that made it clear that she had carefully read that week’s reading and was making insightful connections to class themes. She really took an interest in understanding why Missouri built so many prisons despite its history of fiscal conservatism and seemingly moderate use of history in the state’s past.”

Missouri is not a state that has really been studied, but Smith said there are some interesting trends.

“We have higher incarceration rates than any of our neighbors,” she said. “We behave a lot more like a southern state than a midwestern state.”

Smith’s research had her combing through old newspaper articles and spending a week in Jefferson City, Mo., researching legislative bills and minutes.

“It’s harder than I ever would have thought,” she said with a smile. “We are focusing on a time period, the 1970s and 1980s, which is too long ago to have already been digitized but not considered old enough yet that it’s been electronically archived, so there’s a lot of digging through hard copies.”

She’s currently completing the analysis stage of the data collection.

“I hope to find out why Missouri is the way it is in terms of our prison population being so much higher,” she said. “We are a very frugal state when it comes to most government spending, but we kind of jumped head first into corrections. There really hasn’t been a lot of hold back when it comes to building new prisons. It’s just very different from other areas of government in Missouri – like education, where the government tends to be more tight pocketed.”

The UMSL Experience

Jen Hatton

Jen Hatton