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Million Dollar Hoods: Why L.A. Cages More People Than Any Other City

Dick Price & Sharon Kyle: Perhaps not unexpectedly, the mapping project shows that some few neighborhoods—mostly heavily Black and Brown ones—account for huge percentages of L.A. County’s nearly billion-dollar jail budget.
million dollar hoods

From ground-breaking historical research, to the widely praised Million Dollar Hoods project, to an associate professorship, UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández has been spinning a lot of plates for a long time. When we sat down with her one afternoon at a local vegan eatery, we wanted to know more about this professor we’ve seen all around town supporting a variety of social justice issues.

As we arrived, Lytle Hernández was on the phone with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, arguing to get a download of arrest data to flesh out the growing “Million Dollar Hoods” project she began in 2016. She motioned for us to take our seats while she finished her conversation. Clearly, Lytle Hernández takes advantage of every free moment to get something done. She has to, the work requires it.

“Million Dollar Hoods,” she told us, “began as an attempt to provide data to the community, a community that was trying to get a sense of the full costs associated with the burgeoning prison population.”

What began as a simple download and analysis has now become a foundation-funded program with dozens of team members and possible research avenues stretching far outside Los Angeles.

For inspiration, Lytle Hernández looked in part to the work of Nell Painter, the historian who wrote “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” an essay that examines the long-term human cost of slavery, to slaves and slaveholders alike.

[dc]“T[/dc]heir data is really shoddy. There'll be a dozen different spellings for ‘Los Angeles.’ An arrested person might have dozens of entries for a single arrest. The department uses old operating systems," she told us after hanging up with the L.A. County Sheriff's department. “All that has to be cleaned up before we can perform any meaningful analysis.”

Lytle Hernández has assembled a large team at UCLA to handle the time-consuming task—some students, some staff, some volunteers using the data in their own research.

“I’ve been very careful about the team I assembled. Usually, this kind of work is done by people who don’t live in the affected communities,” she said. "But my team comes from the overly policed communities we’re studying. They know people, family, who have been incarcerated. I’m guarded about that."

“I like to pay team members, too," Lytle Hernández said. "That helps encourage their commitment, but also, many of them have tuition to pay, right?”

Million Dollar Hoods uses mostly publicly available data to show how much the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have spent per neighborhood to incarcerate residents in county and city jails between 2010 and 2015.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the mapping project shows that some few neighborhoods—mostly heavily Black and Brown ones—account for huge percentages of L.A. County’s nearly billion-dollar jail budget.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the mapping project shows that some few neighborhoods—mostly heavily Black and Brown ones—account for huge percentages of L.A. County’s nearly billion-dollar jail budget.

Million Dollar Hoods builds on the Million Dollar Blocks work done in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and elsewhere.

“Much praise goes to Eddie Ellis and the fellows at Glen Haven prison in New York,” she said. "They looked around and saw that all the inmates around them came from the same few blocks”—just seven New York City neighborhoods.

Rather than use state prison data as did Eddie Ellis’s group and other similar projects, Lytle Hernández's team decided to focus on Los Angeles County and use neighborhoods, as that’s how communities organize themselves here.

“L.A. has the largest jail system in the nation, so we thought that would be a good place to start.”

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Originally, Lytle Hernández saw Million Dollar Hoods as a one-off project—research LA County jails and move on.

“But the project really caught people’s attention and now other nearby communities—Kern County, San Bernardino, Santa Ana—are asking for our help,” she said. “So we’re looking to see how we can grow. And, because incarceration is more than just a budgetary issue, we’re looking at how this over-policing and over-incarceration affects people personally. By this summer, we should have 100 oral histories—interviews with people who’ve been affected."

million dollar hoods

Lytle Hernández is professor of history and African American studies at UCLA, where she serves as interim director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. She sees herself as an historian, not an advocate.

“Yes, our work is oppositional and, yes, we want to see jail budgets decreased,” she said.“But my focus is on the research. We apply strict academic standards. We don’t cook the books for anyone. I’m careful about that."

But, she also said their perspective is informed by how they use the data. “Rather than using crime reports for our analysis, we request arrest data,” she explained. “That gives us insight we couldn’t get from crime reports alone.”

Rather than doing advocacy work itself, the Million Dollar Hoods project looks to collaborating organizations—Critical Resistance-Los Angeles, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Dignity and Power Now, and Youth Justice Coalition, among others—to use the results generated by their analysis to shape public opinion and galvanize support for change.

Lytle Hernández sees her Million Dollar Hoods work as a continuation of her 2017 book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, which examines the city’s history of incarceration from the Spanish conquest right up to the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

“What we’re seeing with our current jails crisis—and the immigrant detention crisis at the border—isn’t an aberration,” she maintained. “We have a long history of removing, banishing, incarcerating, and otherwise eliminating people from the city”— indigenous people, sexual minorities, non-white immigrants, and African Americans.

million dollar hoods

As she said in her recent book, “Mass incarceration is mass elimination….Incarceration operates as a means of purging, removing, caging, erasing, disappearing, and eliminating target populations from land, life, and society in the United States.”

City of Inmates explores Los Angeles’ almost 200 year history of caging people of color. The jacket speaks of how Lytle Hernández “unmasks how histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and black disappearance drove the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles.”

Asked if being an historian is particularly difficult, especially as she sees injustices reconstitute themselves throughout our history, she told us she believes we are destined to witness the reconstitution of many injustices that were thought to be things of the past because we have yet to get to the bottom.

Lytle Hernández is not particularly focused on short-term policy changes.

“Remember, I'm an historian, not a policy expert,” she said. “Sure, I'm opposed to L.A.’s new jail construction and want real cash bail reform, but I want to get to root causes."

Having lived briefly in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, Lytle Hernández means that the United States needs to come to a full stop and have a period a period of truth and reconciliation as a few countries—South Africa, Canada, and Australian—have at least begun.

dick & sharon

Dick Price & Sharon Kyle