‘Hyper-policing’ creates pipeline from public housing to prison in NYC

Researchers at the Columbia University Center for Justice, the CUNY Graduate Center and Washington University in St Louis have identified a distinct pipeline leading from public housing developments to prison.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the researchers show that incarceration rates in New York City census tracts with public housing developments outstrip the incarceration rates in census tracts without public housing, even though crime rates are equivalent.

They attribute this ‘public-housing-to-prison pipeline’ to the hyper-surveillance and hyper-policing of the socioeconomically disadvantaged and predominantly Black and Hispanic residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Their findings, while centred on New York, are applicable to other cities including Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, St Louis, and Oakland.

Analysing census and geocoded administrative data from 2,095 census tracts in New York City in 2010, the study finds that incarceration is spatially concentrated in census tracts with NYCHA developments. In 2010, 17% of the state’s incarcerated population originated from 372 tracts with public housing developments, even though those tracts accounted for only 6.3% of New York State’s population. Compared to non-NYCHA tracts, incarceration rates per 100,000 residents were 4.6 times higher in census tracts with NYCHA developments. Moreover, 94% of tracts with NYCHA developments had incarceration rates that were above the median value for non-NYCHA tracts.

‘That incarceration is disproportionately concentrated in disadvantaged and segregated Black neighbourhoods is well-documented. Our study is the first to report an association between concentrated incarceration and the presence of public housing developments in a neighbourhood, highlighting such developments as a key site of spatially clustered incarceration,’ said study co-author Van Tran, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Historically, public housing developments have been a site of social and spatial control carried out by the police. In New York City, the NYCHA housing authority and the NYPD have maintained a long-term collaboration that seeks to maintain social order and reduce crime. One unintended outcome of this collaboration is the ‘police-to-public-housing pipeline of information,’ contributing to the hyper-surveillance of NYCHA residents, developments, and neighbourhoods.

Moreover, policing tactics such as vertical patrols within the buildings, stop and frisk, zero-tolerance policing, nuisance ordinance enforcement and enhanced surveillance technologies such as cameras ubiquitously placed throughout NYCHA complexes disproportionately impact NYCHA residents, resulting in many more negative interactions with the police.

‘We can dive into the problems, but the question under consideration is who wants to sit at the table with scholars from these neighbourhoods and explore solutions,’ said co-author Jay Holder, who is director of the National Executive Council at the Center for Justice at Columbia University and has lived in public housing.

The study points to three ways to improve the current system. First, an alternative to the absolute reliance on the police for establishing safety in NYCHA communities is the employment of formerly incarcerated individuals to help mediate violence in their own communities. This is known as the Crisis Management System in New York City – a public health approach to violence known globally as the Cure Violence Model.

Second, public policies to deconcentrate poverty must address the root causes of mass incarceration in public housing developments – intergenerational poverty, trauma, and violence in the context of structural racism.

Third, it is critical to create leadership opportunities for individuals directly impacted by incarceration, including education, advocacy, civic engagement, research and policy development, and policy implementation.

Photo by Matthew Ansley


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