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People in Neighborhoods with High Incarceration Rates Are More Likely to Suffer from Depression and Anxiety

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

To hear proponents tell it, broken-windows policing—a strategy that calls on officers to react strongly to minor crimes in order to ostensibly prevent major ones—is all that has stood between New York as we now know it and its graffiti- and crime-drenched past. Entire neighborhoods once widely considered no-go zones turned into desirable addresses. Stop and Frisk seemed like a painless and effective component of broken-windows policing, in which police officers were encouraged, some say even required, to informally detain, interrogate, and pat down individuals engaged in a tragicomic range of activities. The most common: walking down the street unarmed, innocent, and in possession of a certain amount of melanin. It’s no wonder that as recently as last year, 55 percent of white New York voters told pollsters that crime would clearly rise if police abandoned Stop and Frisk. 

Opponents, on the other hand, have long argued that this kind of policing has encouraged civil rights violations, damaged the relationship between police and communities, and generated few meaningful crime-fighting results. New research published this month in the American Journal of Public Health reveals some additional unsettling consequences of a criminal justice system that concentrates its attention on particular communities. Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have identified significant collateral damage for the mental health of people left behind in neighborhoods where incarceration rates are unusually high.

The researchers found elevated rates of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder in neighborhoods with higher than average imprisonment rates. (Generalized anxiety is characterized by potentially debilitating levels of worry and fear. It impedes thinking, working, and decision-making; it can also manifest in physical symptoms such as insomnia, trembling, twitching, muscle tension, and other problems.) The effects were so severe, that even individuals who lived in these neighborhoods but had never been jailed were more likely to suffer from serious anxiety than people living in communities where a prison experience remains rare.

The Columbia researchers came to this conclusion by cross-referencing address data from Michigan prison admissions files and mental health information from the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study. Researchers also gathered information from 4,180 individuals by phone. After controlling for a number of variables (age, race, income levels, etc.), the team found that anxiety and depression levels remained higher in communities where a larger than average number of residents were in prison or back home after being paroled.

Why do high neighborhood incarceration rates cause that kind of damage to community mental health? The researchers found that removing large numbers of people from a community disrupts what they call the “social ecology.” It limits the availability of family and friends to provide the support, comfort, and assistance that helps sustain human mental health. In other words, when the threat of jail time is in the air, and your support network is diminished, the risk of major depression and debilitating anxiety grow.

The study did not attempt to determine why or how some communities came to contribute a larger than average number of inmates to Michigan’s prisons. But others draw a direct line from aggressively proactive policing in certain communities to high incarceration rates in those same neighborhoods.

“The succinct answer on the cause [of mass incarceration] is we chose to be here," says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. As crime surged around the country in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, recessions, municipal cut backs, and white flight made some cities look and feel like war zones. State and federal legislators elected on law-and-order platforms dedicated considerable energy to fighting crime. They made prison sentences longer for even nonviolent crimes. They implemented mandatory minimums and funded the war on drugs. As the crack epidemic raged in many low-income black neighborhoods, activists, clergy, and residents called on police to be more proactive, and, most of all, present, says Inimai Chettiar, the director of New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice Program. But the police officers who provided that stepped-up neighborhood presence also brought with them a litany of conscious and unconscious biases, Chettiar explains. Together, these conditions exponentially expanded the nation's incarceration rate. Between 1973 and 2009, the United State’s prison population more than quintupled. Most of that increase ensnared people of color.

Most of the U.S. prison population, in fact, comes from a relatively small set of predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods, according to Harvard University social scientist Robert Sampson. These neighborhoods are scattered all over the country, but sit primarily in major cities. In Chicago, the subject of Sampson’s 2012 book A Great American City, incarceration rates in predominantly white communities with the biggest prison-going problems were 45 times smaller than those in the hardest hit black neighborhoods. (Sampson’s research focused on the period between 1990 and 2005, but he told me these patterns remain remarkably consistent.) 

More recently, Sampson and Travis were part of a group of social scientists who conducted a multi-year examination of the country’s elevated incarceration rate. The National Academy of Sciences published the massive study’s full results last year. The group’s conclusion: Incarceration has become a source of public harm. It may cause more crime than it prevents, damage the families and communities from which the nation’s prisoners overwhelmingly come, and vacuum up huge shares of state budgets that could go to other poverty-alleviating programs. In fact, the country is so deeply invested in mass incarceration that many rural communities have become almost completely dependent on the economic activity created by prisons. And, in 2009, 62 percent of black children whose parents had not completed high school also had a parent who was sent to prison. The same was true for 17 percent of Hispanic children and 15 percent of white children with similar parents.  

Some reforms are beginning to take hold. In New York, Stop and Frisk has been so deeply rebuked by a federal court that the city abandoned a legal fight for the program. The number of people waylaid by suspicious New York City police officers dropped off dramatically last year. In Illinos, Ohio, and California, lawmakers are rewarding counties that reduce the parole revocations that send many people back to prison each year. In California, the first year of the program saved $180 million in incarceration costs and produced a 23 percent drop in parole revocations, says the Brennan Center.

But those efforts are relatively new. Nationally, the damage wrought by decades of mass incarceration remains. Young, black men who don’t finish high school have become more likely to enter prison than hold a job, Travis told me. Once released, those who do find work tend to earn 10 to 30 percent less over their lifetimes than peers who were never incarcerated. Numerous studies have found a host of related consequences: fractured families, deep poverty, children who perform poorly in school and struggle with behavior problems—in short, these children grow up amid the challenges that make time in prison more likely.

A study showing that elevated community incarceration rates create ripple effects that unnerve human beings may sound obvious. But the findings matter. In a country where nearly 3 percent of the adult population is in prison, on probation or parole, and federal officials estimate that one in three black men will be ensnared in the criminal justice system in their lifetime; that’s a very serious problem.

Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist and one of the researchers behind the new Columbia study describes the significance of the team’s findings this way: “There’s absolutely no reason to believe that any of the damage done to mental health in Detroit is any different than it is in any other major city in this country."