Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Uneven Geography of Incarceration

The Atlantic maps a phenomenon of displacement in New Orleans that's wholly unrelated to the aftermath of Katrina.

The map shows the residences of people who entered prison in 2007, and the cost of housing prisoners over their entire sentence by block. Says the Atlantic:
Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of the people who leave prison are rearrested within three years. A disproportionate number of them come from a few urban neighborhoods in big cities. Many states spend more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of single blocks or small neighborhoods.

One such “million-dollar neighborhood” is shown above—a half-square-mile portion of Central City, an impoverished district southwest of the French Quarter. In 2007, 55 people from this neighborhood entered prison; the cost of their incarceration will likely reach about $2 million.
The Columbia Spatial Information Design Lab has a similar graphic for Brooklyn:

Given the heavy concentrations of prisoners in these neighborhoods, it seems that a relatively small amount of investment targeted at these places might be able to break the vicious cycle of crime, incarceration and community disruption. And indeed, says the Atlantic, that's just what some people are arguing:
Some New Orleans officials and community groups are now using prison-admission maps like these to explore new investments—block by block—in the social infrastructure of these damaged neighborhoods. Plenty of money is already being spent on these neighborhoods, in the form of policing and prison costs; the hope is that by spending more money in them, in a highly targeted fashion, the release-and-return-to-prison cycle can eventually be broken.
Taking a preventive rather than reactive approach to problems is not exactly a classic American virtue. Here's to hoping it works.


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