Spatial Information Design Lab/Laura Kurgan: Architecture and Justice: Million Dollars Blocks  

The United States comprises less than five percent of the world’s population, but it houses almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.  The number of incarcerated Americans has exploded over the last 25 years, from 200,000 in 1974 to 2,300,000 in 2008.  Ninety-five percent of people sent to prison are eventually released, and each year, about 600,000 are sent back to their communities.

Almost two-thirds of these released prisoners are sent back to prison within three years.  In census blocks 253 and 254, located in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the state of New York regularly spends more than one million dollars to incarcerate prisoners who live within a single census block.  Advocacy organizations, city planners, and community groups working with released prisoners are asking where these “million dollar blocks” exist, and why more resources aren’t allocated for settlement rather than displacement.

Criminal-justice experts coined the phrase “million-dollar blocks” to describe the phenomenon when the total cost to incarcerate residents from one city block exceeds $1 million. In 2000, New York City had 43,740 of its residents credited to the communities that contain prisons. As much as 7% of one upstate district’s population is prisoners. Counting prisoners as prison-town residents reduces the number of actual residents in these districts, enhancing the weight of a vote in those prison districts. By extension, this vote enhancement dilutes the votes of residents elsewhere in the state.

These maps have attracted attention nationwide from state legislators struggling to justify the ever-widening disparity between their criminal justice and other human services budgets. 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.

The Spatial Information Design Lab illustrates, through complex mapping and animation, the relationship between demographics and the penal system, analyzing the money spent on incarceration versus the investment in housing and neighborhood infrastructure in parts of New York City.  The Lab hopes to transform the urban conditions from which prisoners come and to which most of them ultimately return.

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