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'Million-Dollar Blocks' Map Incarceration's Costs

In many neighborhoods, hard truths about day-to-day life — like violent streets or crumbling schools — are readily apparent to residents, but less obvious to city and state officials.

Hard data can sometimes bridge that gap, helping policymakers better visualize which communities are doing well, and which may need additional help or resources.

The New York-based Justice Mapping Center has been providing those kinds of visuals for more than a decade. By mapping the residential addresses of every inmate in various prison systems, the center has made vividly clear a concept it calls "million-dollar blocks" — areas where more than $1 million is being spent annually to incarcerate the residents of a single census block.

Diane Orson of member station WNPR in New Haven, Conn., offers a window on how city officials there are using such maps to establish re-entry programs in neighborhoods suffering from high incarceration and recidivism rates.

First, All Things Considered's Audie Cornish talks with Eric Cadora, director of the Justice Mapping Center, about million-dollar blocks, and how the concept has been applied in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.

Interview Highlights

On the idea of a "million-dollar block"

"[It's] a term we came up with when we were looking not at crime rates ... but rather at incarceration rates for places ... We mapped where people were going in and out of prison and jail every year, and started to look at that data at a very local level ...

"Then we were tallying up the costs of that imprisonment for each block in Brooklyn, and what we found were these million-dollar blocks — places for which the state and city of New York were spending more than $1 million a year to send people to prison and jail each year, for, on average, between two and three years ..."

On how the maps have helped change Brownsville, Brooklyn

"No one had ever actually sat down and gotten the home street address of everyone going into prison and jail, as well as all the background information about their age and their employment status, etc. And when you have all that data, it tells you a lot about what's going on on the block.

"When we look at the million-dollar blocks that we mapped almost a decade ago, it's a highly concentrated group of public housing and smaller apartment housing all grouped together in a very concentrated manner — each of which we were spending more than $1 million a year for.

"But today when ... we see those blocks, things have changed quite a bit. There has been a real investment by the city and the state, and particularly the Department of Probation, to engage with local organizations around the community and strengthen what they're doing."

On why the maps resonate with legislators and officials

"In all honesty, what we mapped was not a big surprise to people. But when you actually gather the real data ... on maps, [it becomes] immediately understandable to people who didn't see it — like legislators, city council people, researchers.

"They become almost urban planners and start to ask questions like, 'Look at all the resources around this million-dollar area, but they're not being used well. How can we take those resources, and then seek to strengthen them?' ...

"One of the things we noticed right away when legislators and others started to see this, is they talked about this issue differently. Instead of getting stuck in the 'being soft, get tough [on crime]' paradox, they started to talk about neighborhoods ...

"For example, in Connecticut, legislators started to talk there about the Hill neighborhood [in New Haven] ... and why were we spending $6 million a year to remove and return a whole range of people for technical violations, when we could be investing some of those dollars in the social and economic well-being of those places?"

For Ex-Offenders, New Beginnings

New Haven, Conn., is one of many cities around the nation that have organized programming based on million-dollar mapping. About 100 people are released to New Haven from prison each month, most returning to lower-income, high-crime areas identified on the local resource maps.

Re-entry programs, like the New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative, target ex-offenders as they return to their neighborhoods. The programs provide services like transitional housing and job training to help them make the transition back into community life, and also partner with local employers to make it easier for ex-cons to find jobs.

At a recent meet-and-greet at New Haven's police headquarters, people just out of prison are meeting with probation and parole officers. Eric Rey, coordinator for the New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative, is talking with ex-offenders about services available in their neighborhoods.

New Haven police detective Matthew Merced says the police want offenders to know they're here to help. "There's such a revolving door of people coming in and out, in and out," Merced says. "It shows a unified front that we do care about where you go down the road."

Tywain Harris says Emerge Connecticut has provided him a place to go each day as he transitions from prison back into the New Haven community.
/ Uma Ramiah
Uma Ramiah
Tywain Harris says Emerge Connecticut has provided him a place to go each day as he transitions from prison back into the New Haven community.

Dixwell, one of the neighborhoods highlighted on the city's million-dollar block maps, is home to Emerge Connecticut, a transitional work program for offenders who've just returned home.

Ex-offenders get up to six months of paid on-the-job training in construction, says Dan Jusino, Emerge Connecticut's executive director. In return, they agree to attend literacy classes and personal development support groups.

If ex-cons are going to make a successful transition back to society, Jusino says, personal development is just as important as job training. "They've just come out of what we call 'the yard,' which is prison, where there's a certain culture and behavior that they've mastered to survive," Jusino says. "And now we gotta really re-socialize them, but that takes work."

Today ,Tywain Harris is among a handful of men cleaning out a three-story home. "Right now we're excavating. We work as a team," he explains. The program has been good for him, Harris says, "because I get the personal development, and I have a place to go in the daytime."

Bernard Goutier, 25, is also at work. He recently finished serving a nine-month sentence for marijuana possession. That was his second stint in jail, he says. "I had to learn how, you know, not put myself first, but think about everyone around me," Goutier says. "Because they always say, when you do prison time, you're not the only one doing it, your family does it with you."

Seventy-three men have been through the program so far, and, Jusino says, "We've only had three guys re-arrested on new charges, and four guys arrested on technicalities, because there wasn't the supervision."

That low recidivism rate is "unheard of," Jusino says. "I know it's only a sample number, but what most of these programs don't realize ... is they treat these guys like a job is the answer." But a job, Jusino say, is just a part of the solution for men like Harris and Goutier.

This program wouldn't exist without federal and state grants, and private funding. Emerge also received help from the New Haven community. Nearby Yale University, for example, donated the vehicles the program uses.

Most of the guys working here today live nearby. The Dixwell neighborhood sees a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back.

But the Newhallville neighborhood nearby, like Dixwell, also experiences a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back to the community, and sees its share of violent crime.

Newhallville resident Martha Millers Conyers has two sons in prison, and is skeptical that after-prison programs can do enough. Prison itself, she says, needs to do a better job preparing inmates to return to society as productive citizens.

"The young [men] come out of jail; they just walking the streets," she says. "So they never, never pay for what they did, even if they go to jail and come back."

And because so many people return unprepared, Conyers thinks the neighborhood is declining.

"The area just went down, down, down. And it's still going down," she says. "We pay taxes, and our community is just — you really have to ride through here to really see what I'm talking about."

While Conyers says she hasn't seen the benefit of re-entry programs yet, supporters say it's still too early to measure the results. The focus on re-entry is just a few years old, while most recidivism studies are much older than that.

There are hundreds of re-entry programs under way in cities across the country, and program designers are only just starting to use tools like mapping to understand how incarceration and re-entry affects communities. But, advocates say, they're an effective way to better target resources toward neighborhoods like Newhallville — and ultimately build safer cities.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Diane Orson is WNPR's local host for Morning Edition. She's also a reporter for WNPR, as well as a contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane began at WBUR in Boston and came to Connecticut in 1988 as a co-producer for Open Air New England. She shared a Peabody Award with Faith Middleton for their piece of radio nostalgia about New Haven's Shubert Theater. Her reporting has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.