Lock-'em-up laws infect entire neighbourhoods

Jul 24, 2008 04:30 AM

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.

But aside from the staggering cost, the map also brought something else to light. Despite crime occurring across the city, the map showed that residents from some localities were going to prison at much higher rates. Indeed, in 35 areas, sentences to neighbours in the same city block totalled a million dollars.

By pinpointing where inmates lived - a radical departure from maps which normally located where crime occurred - author Eric Cadora was able to show that prisons hadn't made these neighbourhoods any safer. In fact, prison was looking more like a migration policy. Millions of dollars were being spent to basically remove and return people, says Cadora.

And that was an eye-opener for many states, leading legislators to question the 25-year ballooning investment in prisons despite a radical decline in crime rates during the last decade.

The result was justice reform in 10 states, which have instituted new and safe measures to slow the rate of incarceration and have reinvested the 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 Star, inspired by Cadora's work, used inmate address data obtained through frredom 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. Combining provincial and federal inmates, the one-time incarceration bill for Toronto offenders from the 10 most costly areas surpasses $10 million each.

These areas include neighbourhoods that 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 architect 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 most drug offences and jail sentences criminalized. "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 we never put in (prison) at all."

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 a lack of services to ease their re-entry, a third of them are back in jail within three years, most for violating parole or probation.

Studies have shown that communities with high prison admissions spiral even further down. Businesses don't want to locate there, social networking is non-existent and what little informal social control there is - normally exerted by male residents -- disappears when they go to prison.

Over time, the chances of being incarcerated increase 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 basically "grown from within" in these areas, and coupled with more punitive police enforcement, ensured a "growing number of repeat admissions...even as crime rates fell."

"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 re-entry and migration, you start to realize that criminal justice is not going to solve it."

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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 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 and one third are unemployed.

But those factors attracted the homeless-prevention agency Common Ground, whose members now circle the table in their Brownsville Partnership office in much the same way they hope to embrace the community.

The partnership offers a range of family services including parenting classes, prenatal instruction for first-time mothers, a visiting nurse program and high-school equivalency classes to residents of the two census tracts with the highest crime and unemployment. A map of these so-called "million-dollar blocks" hangs in MOMA beside the larger one of Brooklyn.

Female single parents without a high school education are at greatest risk of becoming homeless, a huge factor in Brownsville were at least one out of every 10 males aged 16 to 25 is in prison.

The agency hopes to measure its effectiveness using Cadora's map, as well as others he created that show high rates of foster care, welfare and disconnected youth, who either don't work or aren't in school.

"What we're trying to do is connect people to the services and activities that both can give them the skills they need and bring some hope back to their lives," says senior consultant Gretchen Dykstra. Common Ground will also build 300 subsidized housing units by 2010 and hopes to build another 1,000 by 2015.

It wasn't always this bad in Brownsville.

"We had the best schools, the best stores," said Greg Jackson, Common Ground's executive director, about growing up here 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 Picket Avenue, the main street.

The first subsidized housing project - low-rise apartment buildings called the Brownsville Houses - sprang up in the 40s and the rest stacked up like dominos.

"The neighbourhood went from a tenement-driven neighbourhood to a project-driven neighbourhood," says Jackson, 56. "(People) 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 former residents moved out, taking their family-run businesses with them. "The one business we have is that if your father went to jail, it's likely you go to jail," says Jackson. "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. But crack changed the neighbourhood forever. During the `80s, addicts lined up to buy the drug outside apartment buildings and police patrolled without getting out of their cars. "What you see today is a result of that epidemic," says Jackson. "Those babies born from those parents on crack are the kids that we're dealing with today."

Today, if there is a glimmer of hope in the community of 86,000, it's reflecting off Jackson and the Brownsville partnership.

A former NBA player, Jackson 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 Child's, the BRC's deputy manager. Now it's the most used centre in Brooklyn and has a weight room, workout equipment, computer labs, recording studios, a library and gym.

Jackson and Childs used basketball as a teaching tool, pre-empting clinics with career days, switching up gang members and delaying tip-offs until teams could name state capitals. And Jackson was tough. In a neighbourhood where seniors are off the streets at noon and gangs determine where you can walk or shop, Jackson wouldn'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, part of a campaign to reach 150 youth in Brownsville that they know have committed armed robbery and live in 58 different buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority.

Dykstra hopes Jackson will become "everybody's uncle" and funnel kids to the partnership's services.

And "that's the brilliance of Eric (Cadora's) point," says Dykstra, who notes the partnership can't survive on its one key source of philanthropic funding forever. "Why spend all that money on building prisons and juvenile justice facilities when you can have things like the Brownsville Partnership?"

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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, ten 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 institute five to 10 measures that will safely reduce prison populations and return the savings to communities most affected by crime and incarceration. Measures could include paroling inmates on time -- only 20 per cent of inmates are -- or finding alternatives other than 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," says Cadora. "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 for a wide range of programs, from creating affordable and supportive housing for people returning from prison to working on health and employment issues for an entire neighbourhood.

Cadora, who founded the Justice Mapping Center three years ago, works as a consultant to the Council of State Governments, which leads the reinvestment program. The council advises legislators on how they can reduce their prison populations. 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.

These groups are overrepresented in the high incarceration neighbourhoods. As well, second and third felony drug convictions in New York come with automatic prison sentences.

It's a law Fagan would like to see change. "I'd leave some discretion to sentencing judges to decide who really needed to be taken off the streets and who didn't," says Fagan. "And I'd like to see the laws scaled back. It's not clear that we're deterring other people. It's not clear that we're expressing some kind of moral outrage by punishing somebody for 15 years anymore than if we punished them for five or eight years."

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 instead threw money into aggressive policing in high crime areas.

Police are highly visible in Brownsville. At the Van Dyke II 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," he says. "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.'"

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Commentary in the Toronto Star

160 years ago, England had a similar "sweep the criminals up and get rid of them policy". The jails were filled so they used derelict boats and "deported" hundreds of thousands. Now Ontario Family Court Judges and the Court of Appeal are "deporting" Canadian Citizens on phony trumped up charges while denying a right to a trial, deny any hearing under Ontario's draconian Male Apartheid policies that mean men have no rights in Ontario Courts. A few judges apply their pathological hatred towards men with flagrant abuse. In Eastern Region 63% of all cost penalties against  me are made by just 5 Judges De Sousa, Aitken, Mackinnon (Jennifer), Blishen and Denis Power. Men are being shipped off to Male Concentration Camps in increasing numbers for nothing more than seeking access to their children. See the report at  http://www.ottawamenscentre.com/roscoe