MARY ALICE WILLIAMS, guest anchor: In inner cities across the US high numbers of African-American men are caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s costly to keep them in prison. It’s also costly to the communities they leave behind — and return to. Phil Jones reports.

PHIL JONES: Welcome to Brownsville — a pocket of poverty inside Brooklyn, New York, a place where crime and prison often are a way of life.

RONALD HERRON: Both my parents were drug addicts. My father wasn’t at home.

DEJUAN SMITH: I went to prison for murder in the second degree.

NATHANEL RICE: The first time for robbery — two years; second time for robbery —12 years; third time for drug possession.

Vincent Mattos

VINCE MATTOS (Community Activist): I was out hustling narcotics. What I would have to tell Mom is, “Look, I found a whole bunch of money!” I would see Mom crying because she was behind on bills or something like that. I would come in and say, “Mom, look I found x, y and z.” You know, she was like, oh, you know, “God is good” — this and that.

JONES: But Vincent Mattos’s mother is proud of her 42-year-old son.

Mr. MATTOS (speaking to men): Hey brothers. How you doing?

JONES: He now roams these troubled streets as a community activist. He knows the turf.

Mr. MATTOS: Young men that’s out on the corner from sun-up to sundown, falling back to do what they know to do to earn a living because there’s no jobs for them. There’s no helpful reentry program that’s in place right now. Whatever you want, you can get it on this strip. Drugs, sex, and guns, that’s what’s major out here.

JONES: What else is major — the pervasive presence of police with the task of arresting the bad guys and putting them behind bars. There is no doubt that police activity decreases crime. But is there a tipping point, when legitimate law enforcement, designed to protect the public, may have unintended consequences: promotion poverty, even more crime?

ERIC CADORA (Director, Justice Mapping Center): The current overuse and overdependence on criminal justice is a complete failure. It’s having no impact on these issues of public safety and crime. That’s not to say there isn’t a need for a level of criminal justice. But this radical overuse is not accomplishing those goals.

JONES: In the 1970s, there were about 200,000 inmates in US prisons. Today there are about two million. For years law enforcement used crime mapping to target places where the crimes were being committed. Eric Cadora, director of an organization called the Justice Mapping Center, is an advocate for sentencing reform and prison alternatives. He proposed another use for mapping.

location map

Mr. CADORA: I said, “Well, what if we don’t do crime mapping? What if, instead, we mapped where people lived who are going into jail and prison every year?” When we started doing maps of where people lived, we found hugely concentrated neighborhoods where vast majorities of people were going to prison and jail and coming back, and other neighborhoods where nearly none were.

This is New York City. The brightest red show the highest rate per thousand adults, male adults, admitted to prison for a single year. Let’s say there are about 100,000 people living in Brownsville — about half of them are male, that’s about 50,000. About — between 10 and 13 percent are going to prison and jail every year.

JONES: This increased prison population has come at a staggering cost to taxpayers.

Mr. CADORA: We can now calculate, block by block, how much we’re spending to remove and return people en masse from and back to that block.

JONES: This cluster of housing projects is what Caldora calls a “Million Dollar Block.”

Mr. CADORA: We found about 150 individual blocks in New York City for which we were spending more than $1 million a year to remove and return people to prison and jail.

JONES: Cadora uses dark red to show the concentrations in other states. They are maps that call for new directions.

Mr. CADORA: What these maps have done is accumulate the effect over the course of a year of a criminal justice and imprisonment system. What’s heated up here is a mass migration with the costs of having to move back and forth from this neighborhood to prisons upstate and back. So what we’re seeing here is constant grappling with resettlement, with disruption, cost of split families, tough health care.

JONES: Greg Jackson, another civic activist and a life-long resident of Brownsville, doesn’t need a map. He’s seen his own community imprisoned.

Greg Jackson

GREG JACKSON (Community Activist): Incarceration is not just the individual going to jail, but it’s the whole family going to jail, for Brownsville. Everybody’s suffering from it.

JONES: How’s that?

Mr. JACKSON: Because when this individual comes out of jail he still can’t find employment. And that person, the kids he left behind, the parents he left behind, the wife he left behind, they all suffer in the interim. So, when he comes out you think, “Wow, it’s a good time, my father’s coming out of jail, my mother’s coming out of jail.” There’s nothing good about it.

JONES: For one thing, felons aren’t allowed to live in these public housing projects, although some do. Others end up homeless, and most are jobless. Ask Dejaun Smith, still struggling eight years after his release.

Mr. SMITH: I’ve done odd jobs like — I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many. I went to an interview several months ago, and once they learned about my conviction they looked at me like, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

JONES: After decades of hard-line policies on crime — tough justice — more and more communities are looking into what is called Justice Reinvestment.

Mr. CADORA: Let us take the investments that had been built up over the years from criminal justice, redirect them to investments in civil institutions in those neighborhoods — better schools, better health care, better mental health support, and so on. In many of the states where the Justice Reinvestment initiative has taken root, prison populations are either dropping or the trend line in growth has been radically reduced, and that’s from Connecticut to Kansas — liberal to conservative.

JONES: Most of the crimes are connected to violence, drugs, and alcohol. But researchers found another culprit for the increased prison populations.

Mr. CALDORA: We found states where 60 to 65 percent of everyone entering prison each year were entering as a result of a revocation of parole and probation.

JONES: That was the case in Kansas, so legislators passed a new law — a new direction —committing taxpayer dollars to cities and communities that change parole and probation regulations that’ll reduce the prison population by 20 percent.

Mr. CALDORA: That’s kind of what the reinvestment project is about. It’s about saying, “Look, if you can reduce it, we’ll give you the money to keep reducing it.”

JONES: According to Caldora, states are being forced to rethink their hard line throw-the-criminals-in-jail attitude because, especially in these hard economic times, the criminal justice system is too costly, both financially and psychologically.

Eric Caldora

Mr. CALDORA: They realize that this overwhelming overuse of criminal justice is one of the greatest threats to sort of civil society.

JONES: This threat to society, this impact on communities in prison, can be felt on the streets and inside the crowded housing projects. We met Matoka Belton. She didn’t want us to see her three children. Their father went to prison.

(to Ms. Belton): What was he in prison for?

MATOKA BELTON: A number of things, and it was due to survival.

JONES: What was impact on the children of him being away?

Ms. BELTON: It’s hard because they’re like, you know, what “school” is this, because you try not to say he’s in prison. “What school is this that they don’t come home? College?” But then it comes to the point where they’re a certain age and you can’t lie anymore. I was once an inmate myself. I know what it was like for my children to feel like, “Wow, my mother’s not here. Why can’t mommy come home with us?” It’s hard to leave a visit.

JONES: It’s a cruel cycle — poverty, crime, prison — passed from one generation to the next. A child whose parent went to prison is likely to end up behind bars too.

Mr. MATTOS: When you look at a kid and you say, “How could that kid, you know, have done such a crime like that?” Because he was never really told that was something wrong to do. He never celebrated Christmas with the family or sat down at the dinner table with the family.

JONES: About 700,000 inmates come back home every year. Most are unprepared for re-entry, and their communities are unprepared for their return. As the US government is making huge investments in industries and businesses, it is now being forced to also address a broken justice system, a system in desperate need of a stimulus package of sorts — justice reinvestment.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Phil Jones in Brooklyn, New York.


Communities in Prison

In inner cities across the United States, high numbers of African-American men are caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s costly to keep them in prison, and it’s also costly to the communities they leave behind.

  • Val Hymes

    Hi Phil: Good piece. Best voice on the air. Glad to find where you are. Will add it to the Web site I edit:

    We recently started reunions of old Md. Gen. Assemb. reporters and editors. Vintage Press Irregulars. Weren’t you one of us for a while?

    I also send news briefs to a network of over 200 around country.

  • Carin Knight

    Its time to acknowledge how chattel enslavement transformed to economic. Cellblock designs are modern day slave vessels operating on concrete instead of oceans.

  • Neil Stafford

    Would you be comfortable with sex offenders and other felons released from prison as neighbors? Most everyone would emphatically say, NO! We as taxpayers and families must insist that these men and women be treated with proven-effective rehabilitation before being released to our communities.
    The key phrase above is “proven-effective”. We cannot continue to release these folks with minimal rehab classes, if they get any at all. These folks need to demonstrate needed changes in their thinking and behavior before they are released. Review the summary of Practical Safety Solutions at These proven concepts are offered free for downloading, along with other manuals related to overcoming addictions and unwanted behavior patterns.

  • Susan Krantz

    What a blessing this story is! I hope that it’s message is received everywhere. It is time for change and I would like for it to be embraced!

  • Kodi

    Obama will fix it, right?

  • Kim Jackson

    This commentary was insightfuland the solution provided seems logical but what they should share with viewers is that there is more profit in prison building than community building. Their are investment companies that create portfolios for wealthy clients to invest in prison construction. Some folks will not see this as a problem until the problem comes into their backyard.

  • Astralis

    There’s a major cause and effect problem with this piece. Times have changed and I can guarantee that almost every criminal in this article was raised in a fatherless home. This is a problem in the African-American community that everyone is afraid to talk about because of the belief that somehow divorce empowers women. Instead, it’s destroying these communities. The police or government can’t substitute for a family these unfortunate men have never had.

  • Kelly Trimble

    Well, something is obviously wrong. The CJ system is very successful at putting hoards of people in jail, but not in actually inhibiting crime. The vast proportion of the population that is incarcerated, and the concentrations of incarcerations in some communities, as well as other visible effects, clearly demonstrates that the criminal justice system may not be doing what it is supposed to be doing and may have collateral effects on the communities it purports to serve, leading us to begin to question whether the community’s continued investments in these systems is warranted. This is the tip of an iceberg that cannot be dealt with in a ten minute video piece. There is a much larger problem here, but what is inhibiting the search for an implementation of real solutions? I suspect it has to do with the advancement of criminal justice institutions despite the effect on communities. I wonder if that is where some of the research should be focused. I am aware that this concept of mapping incarceration instead of mapping crime illustrates a correlation between high levels of police activity and community disintegration, but this program illustrates it in a part of NYC that nobody cares about anymore. It might be more persuasive if it showed incarceration mapping in smaller cities and in rural America.

  • Just

    Great story.

    Every time there is a need to make monies in rural communities like those found in Upstate New York, for instance, more arrests are made in the inner city communities (predominately populated by African Americans) to create jobs. Should the recession worsen, I am afraid that arrests, re-arrests will be beefed up to fill the state’s coffers.
    When a politician wants to run for office and they find themselves terribly behind in the polls and/or facing possible defeat, they immediately inject the “fear-factor” into the minds of the community at large – focusing, again, on inner city communities and the criminal elements therein.
    The poor, Blacks, in particular, keeps the CJ wheel well oiled and turning.
    It would be great if Obama…or somebody who cares, took a look at the structure of this industry and dismantled it.

  • Earlene Bethel-Sperling

    The May 22nd presentation of “Communities in Prison” was so timely and so right on target. Is there any way I can get intouch with Mr. Greg Jackson. I would Like to Know What it would take to have a study done here on Staten Island that is inundated with designated poverty pockets?

  • nanette matthews

    The idea of justice mapping is timely and imsightful, nonetheless, actions such as these are inneffectual if the real criminals are not apprehended. Those wall street fat cats that subvert this country’s economy by deliberating how they can bleed the country of its resources while exploiting the poor and underserved namely african american youth pre-empted way before their time and then stigmatized with the mark of the permanent criminal record. Once blemished it is a fail safe method that the individual is condemned to marginalized status, sadly, for life. Prison as an economic policy is eerily akin to the instition of slavery and a slave is a slave is a slave. In any economy three dollars a day is synonomous with slave wages. When are we going to stand up for the rights of our children? Many of us act as if we are so damned happy to be in favor, we are too timid to stand up for the rights of those who are most in need of our assistance. How far we have to go.