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Million-Dollar Blocks
The “most phenomenal” fact of all
New York, 2012— Eddie Ellis spent twenty years in prison in New York State.
In 1992, just after he had been released and returned to his home in Harlem, he
told New York Times reporter Francis X. Clines about research that he and other
prisoners had done while incarcerated, research in what the story called “a pris -
oner's 'think tank' at Green Haven prison in Stormville, N.Y.” 62 Of all that they
had learned, a pair of “hard facts” stood out, he said: “the fact that more than 85
percent of prisoners in the state are black or Latino and—most phenomenal of
all—that 75 percent of the state's entire prison population comes from just seven
neighborhoods in New York City.” The article, which ran on the front page of the
paper two days before Christmas that year, went on to explain that this second
fact, “that three out of four prisoners come from, prey upon and return to seven
neighborhoods encompassed by just 18 of the state's 150 Assembly districts, or 12
percent of the population, is at the heart of Mr. Ellis's new mission as an unaccred-
ited street penologist without portfolio.” The story was accompanied by a map, the
caption of which read: “Map of New York City, indicating seven neighborhoods
where three out of four New York State prisoners come from.”
Ellis's home-grown research mission—and in particular, the map—caught the
eye of other scholars and advocates for criminal justice reform. A year later, Lola
Odubekun published the Vera Institute Atlas of Crime and Criminal Justice in New
York City , which, in addition to its rather predictable crime maps, also included two
maps of incarceration: one titled “Rikers Island Inmates by Home Residence, March
1993” and another titled “Distribution of Persons Arrested by Neighborhood of Res-
idence, 1989.” 63 Although the report noted that “69 percent of the 64,501 inmates
in the state prisons were from New York City,” 64 and although the maps clearly
showed that the vast number of those inmates came from very few neighborhoods
in the city, no conclusions were drawn noting the unusual statistical concentration.
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