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Warring on Neighborhoods with Mass Incarceration

A Q&A with Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Daniel Cooper

The War on NeighborhoodsWhat happens when the main investment in a community is policing and mass incarceration rather than human and community development? The result is what scholars Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Daniel Cooper call a “war on neighborhoods,” which furthers poverty and disadvantage. The neighborhood of Austin, a majority-Black community in Chicago’s West Side, is representative of such neighborhoods where residents have endured decades of the highest rates of arrest, imprisonment, and crime. Lugalia-Hollon and Cooper tell the story of Austin in their book The War on Neighborhoods: Police, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City. In it, they also call for a profound transformation of our flawed approach to public safety. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with them to chat about their book.

Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration for writing the book?

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon & Daniel Cooper: Both of us worked on Chicago’s West side for years, focusing on several different issues. But all roads eventually led us to mass incarceration. Whether we were working on housing, workforce development or youth development, we began to see how the justice system impacted all these issues. They were inextricably connected.

In the time we spent working on the West Side, we saw just how profoundly mass incarceration affects communities. We saw neighborhood resources disappearing—from grocery stores, to non-profits, to schools—while investment in removing poor people and sending them to prison continued unabated.

While these were not new insights to people living on the West Side, that reality is totally foreign to most Americans living outside of such impacted places. We thought it was urgent that more people were aware.

CC: Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how crucial they were to your approach in writing the book.

RLH & DC: We wrote this book as witnesses; as white men who have been immune to the racism of the criminal justice system. We grew up without knowing many people who had been incarcerated. But the more we got to know the city of Chicago, and the more we got involved, the harder it was to ignore the painful reality of one of the greatest injustices of our lifetime—mass incarceration. By writing about the difficult truths we found in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, we hope more people will be informed when they talk about policing and incarceration in our country.

We also approached the book as urban planners. We both have a planning background, which is really important to us. We believe that with the right investments and local decision-making power, neighborhoods can always be strengthened and transformed for the people who live there. That’s what we want to see happen in the Austin neighborhood.

CC: One term you use in the book is “concentrated punishment.” Why is this term important for us to understand the effects of mass incarceration in places like Austin?

RLH & DC: Many people understand that incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, and black people in particluar. But the disproportionality is much more striking when considering the geography at play.

The scale of punishment in Austin, and other West Side neighborhoods, is shocking when compared to white neighborhoods and cities. At any given time, Chicago’s Austin area has more people behind bars than several small countries combined. Incarceration rates on Chicago’s West Side are ten times that of Russia (442 per 100,000), which is among the other top imprisoners on earth. Meanwhile, the incarceration rates of even the most impacted white areas are nothing extraordinary. The rate of Chicago’s most affected white neighborhood is roughly the same as South Korea’s (104 per 100,000), which is very close to the global average (100 per 100,000). 

Because our urban areas are so segregated, many people have managed to avoid the realities of areas like Austin. Our book attempts to put those realities front and center so they can’t be avoided.

CC: Why is it commonly believed that increased aggressive policing and imprisonment in neighborhoods will curb crimes when studies show they actually lead to increased disadvantage?

RLH & DC: Many people still believe that more punishment leads to more safety, which is one of the greatest myths of the last forty years. This wasn’t always the case. At one time, we saw poverty as the root cause of crime and public safety challenges.

Starting with Nixon, there was a concerted effort to flip this order, for largely political purposes. When society labels crime as the root cause of poverty, then we can justify locking up people at alarming rates, and we don’t have to invest in alleviating poverty. Successive adminstrations campained on law enforcement solutions, which play to people’s fear of “the other.”  

The reality is that the benefits of punishment weaken over time and even start to reverse, especially in places where punishment is concentrated. In just one five-year period, there were 6,700 residents incarcerated from a West Side Chicago zip code. That’s thousands of parents and neighbors taken away. Now, what are the cumulative effects of those removals?

Those absences affect the next generation of residents. They impact everything from parenting, to school performance, to household stability. As a society, we frequently talk about how important families are to the lives of both young people and neighborhoods. Yet we destroy families when we remove a parent frome the household, and then we wonder why youth are disconnected and community violence is high. If we keep seeing law enforcement solutions as answers to this problem, we will never solve the deeply rooted issues of poverty and youth violence.  

CC: In what ways are urban and rural communities linked by mass incarceration?

RLH & DC: Across the United States, prison construction in rural places has served as an economic development strategy, with prisoners as the commodity that provides corrections jobs as well as some related service jobs in rural areas—everything from hotels for visiting families, to health and legal services.

As it turns out, this is largely a false promise of economic development. Prisons are not actually a strong foundation for new rural economies. The boost to employment is minimal, though in some places that minimal boost may be the only existing economic stimulus.

This has pitted rural communities against urban communities of color in a perverse, zero-sum competition for increasingly scarce resources. Rural communities are more and more dependent on Chicago’s West Side being treated as prisoners to keep their jobs secure. A reduction in prison sentences is a real threat to job security.

Both places have been similarly abandoned by outside capital. State investments into human, community, and economic development could potentially help both disadvantaged urban and rural areas. That would be a much better model.

CC: What would you like readers to take away from your book, especially in light of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death and where civil rights stands today for urban communities like Austin?

RLH & DC: Dr. King knew that you have to address root causes to change the conditions for communities. And he knew that racism stood in that way of doing that. Today, when we condemn people for their poverty, their race, their homelessness, and their mental illness, and their home address, we are ensuring continued suffering.

To fix our flawed approach to public safety, we have to do more than just change broken laws. We have to reinvest in the communities that have been most affected. We have to address the problems that people in those communities are facing; from unemployment, to mental illness, to housing instability.

Thus, our book calls for shifting resources away from prisons and investing in the human, community, and economic development potential of our most marginalized urban communities. This is congruent with what Dr. King was fighting for in the final months of his life—an economic justice agenda for communities like Chicago’s West Side. It is also aligned with key aspects of the Vision for Black Lives.


The War on NeighborhoodsLearn more about The War on Neighborhoods, a narrative-driven exploration of policing and the punishment of disadvantage in Chicago, and a new vision for repairing urban neighborhoods.






About Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Daniel Cooper

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon
 has worked in youth development for over twenty years, including restorative justice, violence prevention, and trauma-informed care efforts in Chicago. He holds a PhD and Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently leads an education network in San Antonio, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLullon

Daniel Cooper works with organizations in Chicago on issues such as violence prevention, justice system reform, community development, and health equity. He holds a PhD in Community Research and Action from Vanderbilt University and a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founding executive director of the Center for Equitable Cities at Adler University in Chicago.