Patty Winsa Staff Reporter
NEW YORK CITY—Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan shuffle past sinewy resin chairs sculpted by computer and pixelated flowers moving on a wall. Then they stop to study an arresting red-and-black map of Brooklyn hanging in a dark corner of the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit.
Each point on the map, and the red line rising from it like a ray of light, represents the home of a person who was sent to prison in 2003.
People move in to read the map’s description and back out to consider it anew. The sea of red lines obliterates Brooklyn, a startling depiction of an annual mass migration of residents from borough neighbourhoods to prison.
In 2003, those red lines added up to $359 million, the sum for locking up convicts from a handful of Brooklyn’s poorest communities, areas where incarceration rates are much higher than crime rates.More than $1 million was being spent to jail residents in each of 35 individual blocks.
By pinpointing where inmates lived — a radical departure from maps that normally show where crime occurred — author Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center, was able to show that prisons hadn’t made these neighbourhoods any safer because the crime rate didn’t fall. In fact, prison was looking more like an endless migration policy. Millions of dollars were being spent to remove and return people, says Cadora.
In New York, more than half of state prison inmates get out within four years and return home. With little chance of finding a job and few services to ease their re-entry, a third are back in jail within three years, most for violating parole or probation.
The cost was an eye-opener for many states, leading legislators to question the 25-year ballooning investment in prisons despite a significant decline in crime rates during the last decade.
The result was justice reform and reduced incarceration in 10 states, which reinvestedthe prison savings in the neighbourhoods.
Canada doesn’t track where inmates come from or where they return to upon release. As part of this series, the Starobtained inmate address data through freedom of information requests to map incarceration costs. While the data did not allow for an analysis at the city block level, it did, in the case of Toronto, allow a look at a neighbourhood level. The most expensive areas for jail costs are home to the city’s least well off.
Which is exactly what Cadora’s maps demonstrate.
“When you look at prison populations, you find that they are mostly concentrated in very small parts of every city in the United States, and that those populations are very strongly correlated with poverty and with people of colour,” says Laura Kurgan, the Columbia University architecture professor who collaborated with Cadora to turn his map into a statement powerful enough to be a museum piece.
“Ninety-five per cent of people going to prison come back, but people didn’t think of that in the get-tough era,” says Cadora.
During the 1980s, the war on drugs saw penalties for most drug offences get much harsher. “It was like ‘throw away the key.’ But we didn’t throw away the key for anybody.We made sentences longer. We put a lot more people in for short times (that) we never (would have) put in (prison) at all.”
Studies have shown that communities with high prison admissions spiral even further down. Businesses leave, social networking is nonexistent, and what little informal social control there is fails when many of the area’s young men go to prison.
Over time, the chances of being incarcerated increases for any resident who lives there, says Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia law professor who studied New York prison admissions from 1985 to 1996. He believes incarceration is “grown from within” in these areas. Coupled with more punitive police enforcement, it ensures a “growing number of repeat admissions . . . even as crime rates (fall).”
“A lot of people want to prove, is it poverty that causes incarceration or incarceration that leads to poverty? But in all honesty, it just doesn’t matter,” says Cadora. “It’s a circular, self-feeding kind of system and the important thing is to interrupt it. When you look at reentry and migration, you start to realize that criminal justice is not going to solve it.”
IT’S EASY to get to Brownsville, in central Brooklyn,by either crossing from lower Manhattan on one of the most famous bridges in the world or by taking the R train. But most people don’t want to come here. In the largest concentration of public housing in the U.S., people live on household incomes that average $8,000. One-third are unemployed.One out of every 10 males aged 16 to 25 is in prison.
It wasn’t always this bad.
“We had the best schools, the best stores,” said Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Brownsville Partnership, an outcrop of Common Ground, a homeless-prevention agency. He grew up in Brownsville in the ’50s.
“We had all of the bakeries, we had the delis, we had the movie houses, and all those things that are no longer here.”
People came from all over Brooklyn to shop on Pitkin Avenue, the main street. Then the first subsidized housing project — low-rise apartments called the Brownsville Houses— sprang up in the ’40s, and the rest stacked up like dominoes.
“The neighbourhood went from a tenement-driven neighbourhood to a project-driven neighbourhood,” says Jackson, 56. People moving to the projects “came from all over the city, all over the country.They didn’t have a trust for you and you lost that common bond.”
Many residents moved out, taking their family-run businesses with them.
Today, says Jackson, “the one business we have is that if your father went to jail, it’s likely you go to jail. That’s the only father-son business we have.”
When major rioting followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Brownsville was torn up and never rebuilt.
“Places that you thought would be there forever when I was a kid never came back,” says Jackson.
Then came crack cocaine. During the ’80s, addicts lined up to buy the drug outside apartment buildings, and police patrolled without leaving their cars.
IF THERE IS a glimmer of hope in the community of 86,000 today, it comes from Jackson and the Brownsville Partnership.
The partnership, a non-profit organization funded by a philanthropist, offers parenting classes, prenatal instruction for first-time mothers, a visiting nurse program and high-school equivalency classes for two “million-dollar blocks.”
Jackson, a former NBA player, agreed to reopen and manage the city-run Brownsville Recreation Center (BRC) in 1997 after it was closed for six months because of gang violence. “The kids were running wild, they couldn’t control it,” says Jerry Childs, the centre’s deputy manager. Now it’s the mostused centre in Brooklyn. It has a weight room, workout equipment, computer labs, recording studios, a library and gym.
Jackson and Childs use basketball as a teaching tool, pre-empting clinics with career days, switching up gang members, and delaying tipoffs until teams can name state capitals.
Jackson doesn’t tolerate rule breakers.
“He got here, and he’s from Brownsville. ‘I know you, but I know your mother and your father and your uncle. I know everybody in your whole family.’ What’s a kid going to say?” asks Childs. “You can’t argue with him. You get caught and you’ll get put out.” In April, Jackson and Vincent Mattos, a case worker for the partnership, started going door-to-door to reach 150 young people in Brownsville that they know have committed armed robbery and live in 58 buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority.
Gretchen Dykstra, a senior consultant with the Brownsville Partnership, hopes Jackson will become “everybody’s uncle” and funnel kids to the partnership’s services.
“That’s the brilliance of Eric (Cadora’s) point,” says Dykstra. “Why spend all that money on building prisons and juvenile justice facilities when you can have things like the Brownsville Partnership?”
CADORA CREATED the first “money map” a decade ago, while working for the Centre for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, the largest alternative-to-incarceration program in the U.S.
Since then, 10 states have signed on to justice reinvestment, including Connecticut, which went from having one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation to one of the slowest. The plan calls for states to adopt five to 10 measures that will reduce prison populations and return the savings to communities most affected by crime and incarceration. Measures include paroling inmates on time — only 20 per cent of inmates are — or finding alternatives to prison for people who violate their probation.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got millions of dollars worth of solutions that aren’t necessarily any less safe than what you’re doing,” says Cadora, noting that none of the states that adopted the justice reform plan have experienced an increase in crime. “That caught on like wildfire.As we talk to state legislators and state executives, it gives them ways to rethink criminal justice policy with some political cover.”
Communities have used the money to create affordable and supportive housing for people returning from prison and to improve health and employment services.
Cadora, who founded the Justice Mapping Center three years ago, consults to the Council of State Governments, which leads the reinvestment program. He is also working with the New York Civil Liberties Union on a proposal to revise the state’s drug laws, which continue to send large numbers of Blacks and Hispanics to prison — groups that are overrepresented in high-incarceration neighbourhoods.
New York hasn’t signed on to justice reinvestment. The state’s prison population reached a high in the late 1990s, but dropped as the crack epidemic waned and New York City threw money into aggressive policing in high-crime areas.
Police are highly visible in Brownsville. At the Van Dyke Community Center — run by the New York City Housing Authority and just up the street from the BRC — cruisers are parked outside as police come and go.
Wanted posters for two suspected killers sit on a shelf in the lobby, close to where kids play and a grandmother warns outsiders to get out before dark.
But that’s not the message Greg Jackson wants to hear.
“We love each other in Brownsville.So the hope is still there. I tell my daughters and my sons that I’m paying for your education, that I want you to go and get this education, but I don’t want you to leave the neighbourhood. Not yet. You can leave later on. But come back and say, ‘let me save somebody’s life. Let me help somebody else.’ ” Contact the reporting team at firstname.lastname@example.org