Sep. 27 2016

Team Science Tackles Mass Incarceration

Robert Fullilove reflects on the potential for interdisciplinary research to make headway against an intractable problem

When it comes to an outsized challenge like mass incarceration in the United States, experts from every corner of public health are needed—and many are already hard at work studying how communities become vulnerable to population-level effects of mass incarceration and what conditions within prisons inform rates of recidivism. Epidemiologists specializing in infectious diseases are investigating the exposure to Hepatitis C among inmates or HIV rates that are two to three times the national average. A sociomedical scientist, on the other hand, can offer insights into how punitive criminal justice policies are harmful to whole communities.

“Anyone who is working in the arena of housing and homelessness, or community and urban health, is in some respect dealing with the issues created by mass incarceration,” says Robert Fullilove, professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs and the inaugural speaker at the 2015-16 Dean’s Grand Rounds on the Future of Public Health. The theme for this academic year is Team Science—how different disciplines can come together to find solutions for concerns like mass incarceration. Fullilove and his colleagues’ multifaceted efforts around incarceration underscore the “Team Science” point.

At the Mailman School, Angela Aidala, a research scientist in Sociomedical Sciences, studies homelessness and HIV, problems that are particularly acute with the formerly incarcerated. Through his work heading the Young Men’s Health Clinic, Associate Professor of Population and Family Health David Bell links young men of color that are justice-involved to primary care and examines how the justice system shapes their health. Alwyn Cohall and colleagues at the Harlem Health Promotion Center and Project STAY provide health services for justice-involved adolescents and young adults at risk-for, or living with HIV. Research by Mark Hatzenbuehler, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and co-authors found that individuals living in neighborhoods with higher rates of incarceration were nearly three times more likely to have anxiety or depression than individuals in neighborhoods with lower rates of incarceration. For his part, Fullilove has looked at how the War on Drugs and mass incarceration played a role in the spread of HIV.

Inside prisons too, public health can make a difference through programs that support nutrition, mental health, and education. For several years, Fullilove and his colleague Kim Hopper have taught inmates through the Bard Prison Initiative, giving them an opportunity to earn college credit to help them succeed after being released. Among its alumni are Anibal Cortes, who earned an MPH from Mailman in 2014, and Richard Gamara, a second-year MPH student also at Mailman.

“By giving people an education, providing them with training on the inside, they will be in a position of leadership when they get out to talk about issues of public health, even do research in public health,” says Fullilove.

Of course, Mailman isn’t alone in confronting mass imprisonment. Incarcerated for 22 years, Kathy Boudin, now faculty member in the Columbia School of Social Work, holds an annual conference on the Morningside campus called Beyond the Bars that has attracted over a thousand students over the past three years. David Norman, a former inmate and 2016 graduate from the Columbia School of General Studies was recently awarded a Beyond the Bars fellowship for his continuing studies.

The Columbia Business School is approaching reentry from a job placement perspective. Earlier this year, the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise hosted “Solutions to Post-Incarceration Employment and Entrepreneurship: The Role of Businesses and Universities, a conference focused on how businesses can ease the transition for people facing reentry. Among the speakers was Pamela Valera, an assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences who studies cancer in incarcerated populations and co-founded the Bronx Reentry Working Group, which provides support to formerly incarcerated New Yorkers.

Over the past few years, Dean Linda P. Fried has made studying criminal justice engagement a core initiative of the Mailman School. In the summer of 2014, with the help of Lisa Metsch, chair of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, the School hosted “A Public Health Approach to Incarceration: Opportunities for Action, in an effort to lead the way on this topic. It has since evolved into a coalition of students, faculty, and other schools of public health called the Incarceration and Public Health Action Network.

“Across schools and disciplines, from policy experts to laboratory scientists, it’s all hands on deck,” says Fullilove. “I can’t do it alone.”

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