Million-Dollar Blocks

The neighborhood costs of America's prison boom

The Remeeder Houses make up one of the poorest blocks in Brooklyn. Six-story buildings rise from the rectangular patch of land between Sutter and Blake avenues, and between Georgia and Alabama avenues in East New York. More than 50 percent of the project's residents live below the poverty line. Unemploymentis rampant. Run-down, overcrowded apartments are the norm.

By another measure, though, this block is one of the priciest in the city. Last year, five residents were sent to state prison, at an annual cost of about $30,000 a person. The total price tag for their incarceration will exceed $1 million.

Criminal-justice experts have a name for this phenomenon: "million-dollar blocks." In Brooklyn last year, there were 35 blocks that fit this category—ones where so many residents were sent to state prison that the total cost of their incarceration will be more than $1 million.


One Tenant Leader's Take

Ronald Ward has never heard of a "million-dollar block," but he's lived on one for years—in the Howard Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When he talks about crime, he doesn't talk about statistics or dollars or maps. He talks about what he's seen: young men selling drugs out of his lobby; parole officers who have become a regular presence in his project; men who have come home from long prison stays, only to end up selling drugs once again.

"Most of the crime is committed against the people who live here—the muggings, the burglaries," says Ward, 61, a tenant leader who has been living in the Howard Houses for 43 years. "Crime here is really so rampant." There is one particular crime that he is less eager to discuss. Fourteen years ago, his 20-year-old son was out driving a cab when two men got in, pointed a gun at him, then shot him in the head. His son died three weeks later. "Losing a child—I had never experienced that kind of trauma," he says.

When Ward learned that he lived on a million-dollar block, he wasn't surprised. Many of his project's residents go to work every day, he says, but "we've got people with problems." Empty refrigerators, crack addiction, illiteracy. If legislators asked him how to stop the cycle of imprisonment, he says he'd tell them: "Stop the racism." And he'd advise them to improve the schools. "If you don't educate people, you keep them powerless," he says. "They need to understand the system they're living in. When people become aware of that, then they can get out of it." J.G.

In at least one case, the price tag will actually surpass $5 million. These blocks are largely concentrated in the poorest pockets of the borough's poorest neighborhoods, including East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville.

In recent years, as the U.S. prison population has soared, million-dollar blocks have popped up in cities across the country. Maps of prison spending (like the one on the left) suggest a new way of looking at this phenomenon, illustrating the oft ignored reality that most prisoners come from just a handfulof urban neighborhoods. These maps invite numerous questions: How is the community benefiting from all the money being spent? And might there be another, better way to spend those same criminal-justice dollars?

These maps have attracted attention nationwide from state legislators struggling to balance their budgets. In a few state capitols, prison-spending maps have begun to influence the dynamics of the political debate, suggesting new ways to think about crime and punishment, recidivism and reform. One state, Connecticut, has even gone so far as to change its spending priorities, taking dollars out of the prison budget and steering them toward the neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration.

Prison-spending maps highlight the fact that money spent on million-dollar blocks winds up in another part of the state—far from the scene of the crime. In New York State, about 60 percent of prisoners come from New York City, but virtually every prison is located upstate, in rural towns and villages, places like Attica, Dannemora, and Malone. As Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, puts it: "People who live on Park Avenue give a lot of money to people who live in Auburn, New York, in order to watch people who live in Brooklyn for a couple of years—and send them back damaged."

Most likely, nobody would now be mulling over the concept of million-dollar blocks if not for a 42-year-old Brooklynite named Eric Cadora. Back in 1998, Cadora was working at a nonprofit agency in Manhattan called the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, or CASES. He taught himself mapping software and studied the various ways mapping was used, including by the New York City Police Department to identify crime hot spots.

About crime mapping, Cadora says, "People weren't coming at it from a policy reform perspective—and the whole idea of [prisoner] re-entry and community wasn't part of the issue. Most of the issue was about getting tough." Cadora wanted to try a different approach. He decided to create a new set of maps, which he hoped "would help people envision solutions rather than just critiques."

With criminal-justice data he obtained from a state agency, he embarked on his first mapping project: Brooklyn. Colleague Charles Swartz helped, and together they made a series of maps illustrating where inmates come from and how much money is spent to imprison them.

"The reasons we did the money maps weren't to say, 'Gee, we spent too much money on criminal justice,' " Cadora explains. "Because what's too much? The question was to say, 'Look, you can now think of the money you're spending on incarceration and criminal justice as a pool of funds' "—that is, funds that could be spent in a different way. He adds, "What struck me, looking back at a year's worth of prison admissions, was that these were the results of a bunch of individual decisions, but it turns out to amount to enough financial investment to be thought of as an actual spending policy."

In 1999, Cadora began sharing his maps with criminal-justice agencies and nonprofit organizations. Word spread. Soon other states were calling. Five years later, Cadora's maps are well-known in criminal-justice circles. He now works at the After-Prison Initiative, a program of the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute, and demand for his maps continues to grow. By now, he and Swartz have made maps for agencies in Rhode Island, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Kentucky, and New Jersey.

The money that taxpayers spend on prisons pays for the incarceration of some very violent people—the sorts of criminals who neighbors are eager to see go away. These dollars are also used to lock up individuals who commit nonviolent crimes—possession of a few vials of crack, for example. Soon these individuals will be released from prison, and they'll go back to the same neighborhoods. Statistics show there is a strong likelihood they will be locked up again.

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