Linking Mass Incarceration to Black History in Los Angeles and Beyond

By Matt Davis posted 04-07-2022 04:17 PM


Members of the Safety and Justice Challenge grappled with questions about how mass incarceration is linked to Black history at a recent fireside chat during the annual convening of SJC network members.

Bria L. Gillum, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hosted the conversation with Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a professor of History and African American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. She is also a member of the SJC Advisory Council and a MacArthur Fellow.

Bria asked Kelly how she uses her journey as a historian and professor to think about mass incarceration. Kelly began by acknowledging that the land she was dialing in from in Los Angeles was historically colonized. She talked about the Tongva Basin in Los Angeles, home to the Chumash and Gabrielino peoples. Mass incarceration, Kelly said, is “the current chapter in a long book of inequity here in the United States and in the colonies that predated it.”

Academics like Angela Davis have also shown how mass incarceration emerged out of Jim Crow, which arose from enslavement, Kelly said. She recommended Imani Perry’s South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. The book “helps us to understand how so much of our contemporary life, our institutions, our families, our culture is really anchored in the experience of Black enslavement,” she said. The United States was created through a particular form of colonization—the transfer of a European population to the North American continent, Kelly said. The intention was to “remove, erase, and replace the Indigenous population,” Kelly said. Scholars call it “native elimination.” Mass incarceration can be seen in that arc of elimination in   U.S history, Kelly said. It is about “removing unwanted populations” from the “white settler society.”

Bria asked Kelly how current conversations about criminal justice policy fit into that lens. For example, there are conversations happening today about reverting to policies from the 1980s and 1990s, like bringing back cash bail or arresting people for crimes of poverty. Bria asked: “What lessons can history teach us about criminal justice reform, and how can we use the history of this country to impact change?”

Kelly said that white supremacy is resilient and adaptable, cautioning against supposed reform efforts if they end up harming colonized and marginalized groups. For example, Kelly referenced Indian Boarding Schools as a so-called reform effort against genocide. She referenced Jim Crow laws as supposed reform efforts against the white backlash against Black emancipation from slavery. We need to monitor the outcomes of reform efforts across time to see if historically marginalized communities are not harmed, Kelly said.

Bria also asked Kelly to reflect on what era the United States is in, now, in 2022. We are transitioning out of an era of mass incarceration, Kelly said. But what comes next is still being defined. We need to listen to the voices and leadership of Black and Indigenous communities “to ensure we have the capacity to build a new society rather than a new regime,” Kelly said. She also called this a “very dangerous moment.”

Kelly spoke about using data to inform those conversations.

“One of the things that we noticed here in Los Angeles – and I’m sure you all were noticing this in other localities across the country – is that data was being used against our communities. We were being told that we always needed a bigger jail or more jails to keep us safe,” she said.

Instead, at UCLA, Kelly worked with community-based organizations in Los Angeles to acquire arrest and jail data. She worked together with those communities to clean up the data, categorize it, give it definitions, and analyze it. Together, they founded the Million Dollar Hoods project, which maps the cost of mass incarceration, documenting that local authorities are spending more than a million dollars annually to incarcerate people in some neighborhoods. The leading charges and causes of arrest in those neighborhoods were narcotics possession and driving under the influence, according to the data. “Both are substance related issues and the community wanted to see a community health response – not incarceration — to those substance related issues,” Kelly said.

The project has also sued the Los Angeles Police Department for data, including 200 boxes of records from the 1980s and 1990s. “We can use these records to document happened during the era of mass incarceration, and how the rise of policing and incarceration extracted much-needed resources from Black communities” Kelly said. Million Dollar Hoods is also collecting oral histories with residents. It’s important to collect people’s stories, Kelly said, to assess the past, understand the present, and imagine a new way forward. “Today, at the end of the age of mass incarceration, we refuse to have our stories overlooked, hidden, or ignored. We are saving our stories, on our terms, to assert a voice in the future to come.”

Bria closed the conversation by asking Kelly to reflect on the work of the Safety and Justice Challenge. The SJC is a diverse network including public defenders, prosecutors, policymakers, city and county leaders, and judges, Bria said. We are entering the third year of a pandemic, and we are continuing to deal with the death of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color people by law enforcement. Bria asked Kelly: “Do you have any recommendations about what we can collectively do to move forward on our criminal justice reform efforts? Taking history as our example, what should we be grappling with?”

Kelly encouraged SJC members to read history, especially to understand the history of criminalization, policing, and incarceration. It documents the many turning points and is a way of opening up the collective imagination about what is next, she said.

Kelly also recommended another book, called Covered with Night—A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace. It is a story about the murder of an Indigenous man by a White colonist. The White colonists were eager to be seen as doing justice and proposed killing the White murderer. But Indigenous people halted the process to avoid “greater harm and greater damage.” Instead, they demanded that the murderer pay emotional and financial reparations and that the neighboring white and Indigenous communities use the crisis to build stronger bonds.

“I encourage people to look at that book for an early alternative to punishment,” Kelly said. “I know everyone’s so busy, but maybe on weekends, pick up a chapter here and there to find the alternative histories that ground our radical perspectives and possibilities for what’s to come.”