Incarceration’s Innocent Victims

August 11, 2015

This summer marks the one-year anniversary of the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, which set off protest and outrage in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and across the country. Demonstrations marking a year of increased awareness about racial unrest that followed Brown's death in Ferguson themselves erupted into violence between protesters and law enforcement, punctuating a national conversation about the racial disparities characteristic of mass incarceration and its negative impact on health.

Research by Mark Hatzenbuehler, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School, shows that the health risks of incarceration extend far beyond the individuals locked up. His study in the American Journal of Public Health finds that living in a community with high rates of incarceration is bad for all its residents—regardless of whether they themselves spent time in the correctional system.

With funding from Dean Linda P. Fried’s Incarceration Prevention Initiative, Hatzenbuehler and colleagues selected the city of Detroit as a site and linked a measure of neighborhood incarceration rates obtained from the Michigan Department of Corrections to a health survey of the city’s residents. People living in neighborhoods with high rates of imprisonment were almost three times more likely to have anxiety or depression than were those who lived in neighborhoods with low rates of incarceration. These relationships held even after adjusting for factors like individual income, trauma exposure, and neighborhood crime rate.

Imprisonment wasn’t the only risk: living in a neighborhood with high numbers of parolees also increased the odds that an individual had mental health problems. According to Hatzenbuehler, this fact points to broader dimensions of incarceration driving these outcomes. Policing too may be a factor. According to research by Bruce Link and colleagues at the Mailman School, stop and frisk tactics were harmful to the mental health of young men in New York City.

“I think you can conceptualize incarceration at the community level as a toxic exposure,” explains Hatzenbuehler, “because it’s corrosive to the social glue that benefits communities and the people that live there.”

The way mental health in a community is affected by mass incarceration opens new ways to thinking about the need for a solution.

“The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rates, but too many Americans still believe it’s not their problem,” says Hatzenbuehler. “What’s happening in Detroit and across our country makes it clear that incarceration has many innocent victims. In thinking about the issue, it’s important to weigh the social costs and health costs, not just the usual criminal justice concerns.”