Documenting Public Housing-to-Prison Pipeline Is a Personal Mission

September 28, 2022

Professor Van C. Tran and two former students portray the students’ “lived experiences” in a revealing and data-driven study.

Van Tran
Professor Van Tran co-authored with two former students a study linking public housing to elevated incarceration rates, and hopes that the study will spur change. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

In a new paper, Professor Van C. Tran (Sociology, International Migration Studies) and two of his former students as well as a colleague at Washington University show that New York City public housing developments function as pipelines to prison for their low-income and largely minority residents. Using data from the national census and New York City, they found that, between 2008 and 2010, incarceration rates in neighborhoods with public housing administered by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) were 4.6 times higher than incarceration rates in neighborhoods that had no NYCHA housing, even though the rates of violent crime were equivalent.

“What we show very convincingly with our data is that crime rates were essentially identical across the two types of neighborhoods,” Tran said. “The only difference, controlling for everything else, was the incarceration rate.” 

Tran and his co-authors attribute this imbalance to the heavy surveillance and policing of NYCHA residents and neighborhoods. They found, for example, that the number of stop-and-frisk encounters with police was three times higher in neighborhoods with NYCHA developments. 

“If you live in a NYCHA tract, you’re going to be more likely to be stopped and questioned and frisked by the police compared to a non-NYCHA tract,” Tran said. “That is what we mean by hypersurveillance.” 

NYC public housing authority (NYCHA) housing developments and concentrated incarceration by census tract in NYC. Incarceration rate is the number of incarcerated per 100,000 in a census tract. (Figure 1).
This map shows NYCHA housing developments and incarceration rates by census tract in New York City in 2010. (Fig. 1 from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.212320111 © 2022)

The study, which relied heavily on data, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a top academic journal. Tran, however, points out that the paper is not merely academic. “This is deeply personal,” he said.

Spurred by Students’ “Lived Experience” of Public Housing and Incarceration

Two of the paper’s co-authors, Tran’s former students Jay Holder and Ivan Calaff, were previously incarcerated. Both earned bachelor’s degrees and are now affiliated with the National Executive Council at the Center for Justice at Columbia University. After taking a course with Tran on Neighborhood Effects and Urban Poverty, they approached him about documenting the role of public housing in channeling people into prison.

“This study came about because of all the friends and family that have found themselves migrating from census tracts with NYCHA developments to correctional facilities [then] return to the neighborhood just to repeat the process all over again,” said Holder, director of the National Executive Council at the Center for Justice, who grew up two and a half blocks from Columbia in a census tract with more than one NYCHA development. 

Holder emphasized that the pattern is not exclusive to New York. “I have family in many states across the country, and I realized that those who have lived in or near public housing were more likely to have been in prison,” he said. 

Tran saw an opportunity. “No one has talked about this linkage between public housing and the prison system,” he said. “But this was their lived experience.”

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Pounding the Pavement for Data

Tran said he immediately thought of writing a paper but wanted it to be rigorous and data-driven, rather than anecdotal. “You’re making a very strong claim, so you have to have strong evidence to back it up,” he said.

Tran, Holder, and Calaff teamed up with Brett Maricque, a professor at the McDonnell Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine and an experienced quantitative researcher. For the study, they mapped every NYCHA development in New York City and gathered and analyzed census data as well as copious data on crime, police actions, and incarceration rates.

Holder and Calaff visited every NYCHA development at least twice to verify its address, which took about two years. “I feel like my feet are beginning to heal from doing all that walking,” Holder said.

Their work yielded the proof that they sought. They discovered, for example, that 17% of the incarcerated people in New York State came from just 372 census tracts in New York City with public housing developments, while these tracts accounted for just 6.3% of the state’s population.

The Policed State of Public Housing

The authors attribute this concentration to what they term the hypersurveillance and hyperpolicing of public housing. They point out that NYCHA developments are the only developments in New York City to have their own city-run police department. Controversial crime-fighting tactics, such as vertical patrols — in which officers search a building from top to bottom — stop and frisk, and zero-tolerance policing also disproportionately impact NYCHA residents, the authors write.

In terms of hypersurveillance, they cite a 1996 memorandum of understanding between NYPD and NYCHA that requires the police department to notify the public housing authority any time a NYCHA address is used in a police investigation. As a result, Tran said, NYCHA will put the home under surveillance and may even evict the residents.

They also point to the prevalence of security cameras, the use of bright spotlights in NYCHA developments, and heavy use of facial recognition systems, social media monitoring, and predictive policing, or using large data sets to anticipate where crimes will occur. “Because of this hypersurveillance,” they write, “NYCHA residents have more interactions with the police simply for being residents and police encounters are often negative.”

New Agents of Change

They recommend several remedies to the policed state of public housing. One, the crisis management system, involves employing formerly incarcerated individuals from the neighborhood to mediate the violence and conflicts within the development. “This is a classic version of how we bring people in from the neighborhood to be part of the solution,” Tran said. The Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the United States, implemented the Cure Violence model, the nationally recognized name for the crisis management system. After adopting this model, the project experienced 365 days without a shooting, according to a 2017 article in The New York Times

Tran and his co-authors also emphasize the need to uproot the intergenerational poverty, violence, and trauma that can lead to incarceration. “This requires concerted efforts to improve education, housing, health care, employment, and social services in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” they write.

Tran said that of the solutions proposed, he believes the most important is “to involve the formerly incarcerated in the process of research, knowledge creation, policy development, and policy implementation.” 

“For centuries, we have had researchers and scholars going into poor, disadvantaged communities, study them, come back with the findings, write a book or a paper, get famous, get compensated, get all the awards,” Tran said. “The people that they study, their voices are in the book, but their names were never on the book or in the book. So we’re saying that there’s a different way to do this. It’s not easy because it requires a lot of trust between the researchers who are involved,” especially, he explained, given the asymmetric power relationship between a tenured professor and formerly incarcerated students who have bachelor’s degrees. 

Holder sees promise in the new approach to research. “This study inspired scholars from neighborhoods being impacted by poverty to scientifically investigate their conditions,” he said, adding that he hopes it will foster new collaborations between students and faculty. 

“The work will continue as we draw inspiration from the people,” Holder said. He said he and Calaff draw inspiration from hip-hop. “As long as artists are reporting about conditions in their neighborhoods through their music and spoken word, for instance, these conditions they are highlighting must be investigated,” he said. “Some people turn off the radio station as musicians provide insight into their lived experience as residents in these neighborhoods. Whereas our colleagues, Van and Brett, not only care about these issues, but they are cool enough that they add these songs to their playlist.” 

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