The data I worked with come from a 2014 study titled, “An Institutionalization Effect: The Impact of Mental Hospitalization and Imprisonment on Homicide in the United States, 1934 – 2001.” The research was led by Dr. Bernard Harcourt, a political scientist and human rights lawyer who is a teaches at Columbia University’s Law school.
The original study collected, and aggregated, various datasets from 1922 to 2001 to trace state and national population flows to and from prisons, jails, and mental health facilities. The study focused on other variables such as race, income, executions, policing, and homicide rates. The purpose of the study was to investigate the relationship between institutionalization, in the form of imprisonment or hospitalization, and homicide rates. Throughout the course of his research, Dr. Harcourt found that people who were institutionalized were more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators of homicide.
Dr. Harcourt’s findings were significant, however, the final report published alongside this study did not provide thorough contextualization of the data. His calls for scholars to pay attention to population trends in mental health facilities intrigued me. Especially after I visualized the data in a stacked bar chart.
Synthesizing the histories of incarceration and mental health in the United States reveal a long history of how state-institutions have been used as a tool to disenfranchise historically marginalized communities. Adding histories of mental health into the narrative encourages scholars to go beyond the carceral state and ask new questions about state power, citizenship, inequality.
By the late 1970s there is a drastic uptick in the number of incarcerated individuals. According to the current historiography on incarceration, that is no surprise because many scholars point to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Programs, white backlash to civil rights, and the popularization of law-and-order politics to the rise of mass incarceration by the Regan administration.
Policy historians have shown the relationship between incarceration and the rightward shift in American politics. Economists and legal scholars have surveyed the transformations within the justice system to reveal the creation of “prison-industrial complex.” They have illustrated the falsehoods of prison-building as a panacea for rural de-industrialization and “urban blight.” Similarly, labor historians have exposed exploitative conditions of carceral labor and its use by state and corporate actors to undermine the power of unionization in the United States.
Ultimately, scholars have found incarceration has contributed to the disenfranchisement of millions of people of color and marginalized communities to create an “American underclass.”
The above dashboard provides additional contextualization to the historiography of incarceration. The inflection points on the two line graphs are mirror the inflection point of the stacked bar graph.
These visualizations illustrate that use of the death penalty, anti-crime legislation, and increases in the policing that emerges from the 1970s did not deter crime, but rather contributed to mass incarceration that has largely been pointed to as the product of the Reagan administration.
The above visualization maps quite well onto the conclusions scholars have made about histories of asylums, psychiatry, and mental health field in general.
By the 1930s there was still lingering progressive era concerns over the “mental hygiene” of the United States and its citizens. Eugenics was still considered a legitimate science, and historians have traced the consequences and continued legacies of coerced sterilization in the United States of communities or people deemed as quote, “other.” The American Psychological Association publishing their first code of ethics in 1953 which led to reforms and further established psychiatry and psychology as a rehabilitative field of medicine, not a method of confinement. If you remember from the image of the stacked bar chart, or if you go to interact with this map, in-patient hospitalization begins to decline by the 1960s due to advancements of the pharmaceutical industry as well as the indirect, and direct, influences of the civil rights era.
While further research needs to be done, when placed together, the history of mental health alongside histories of incarceration reveals how state institutions have been used as a tool of disenfranchisement of a myriad of populations long before the era of “law-and-order” politics.
Harcourt, Bernard. An Institutionalization Effect: The Impact of Mental Hospitalization and Imprisonment on Homicide in the United States, 1934 – 2001. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2014-05-14. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR34986.v1.
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