Leaders of Million Dollar Hoods discuss mass incarceration in Los Angeles

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The Million Dollar Hoods research team discusses the greater significance of their organization and its actions in The Global Forum at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. Miaja Lemieux/The Occidental

Occidental’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA) and the Center for Community Based Learning welcomed members of Million Dollar Hoods Nov. 27 in the Johnson Global Forum. Million Dollar Hoods is a Los-Angeles based social justice program that reports incarceration findings and advocates for the release of deserving individuals in order to raise awareness of the unjust prison system in Los Angeles. Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) started the program. Hernandez said that the name “Million Dollar Hoods” was inspired by the fact that, according to Hernandez, law enforcement spends up to one million dollars on prison costs and arrests within some Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The goal of this program is to identify areas with high incarceration rates and highlight the reasons why these specific rates are higher, according to Hernandez.

Hernandez said the present-day realities of race in the U.S. are reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries. She said that, through the work of Million Dollar Hoods, she has observed that police brutality is the most common manifestation of racial injustice. She uses this as a reminder of why she does the work that she does every day. The combined panel discussion and presentation covered Hernandez’s program and why it is significant, and it emphasized the theme of unjust mass incarceration, which is particularly common in certain areas of Los Angeles, especially the West Side.

“Jim Crow is alive and well,” Hernandez said at the event. “We have yet to end Jim Crow in America.”

According to Hernandez, mass incarceration rates in the U.S. are due to a history of oppression and discrimination, which she explains in her book, “City of Inmates.” The talk began with a short history lesson and synopsis of her book.

Hernandez said that her book explains how most of human society has a long-standing history of oppression against many different ethnic and racial groups. Her book also discusses mass incarceration as one of the primary methods through which these groups experience oppression, for reasons ranging from the color of one’s skin to accusations of being unproductive members of society.

During the event, Hernandez said that the United States has not changed from its previous days of conquest, and that law enforcement today is deliberately seeking people to fill jails, which she said is a modern form of oppression.

“The days of conquest are not over,” Hernandez said at the event. “As long as people continue to occupy the land, the conquest will continue.”

“During the presentation, Hernandez repeatedly said that jails do not make society safer, because most prisoners are regular people who simply made a mistake. As proof, Hernandez said that the top two offenses in Los Angeles jails are driving under the influence and drug possession, as opposed to crimes such as murder or armed robbery.

Hernandez and her colleagues suggested that this country should start building better mental health and addiction programs to better treat mental illnesses and addiction, rather than locking up people who suffer from these issues and spending federal money to keep them there. Hernandez said that if the government allocated more funds in federal programs to improve access to housing, food and social welfare programs in general, fewer people would turn to crime and drugs, which would, in turn, improve the community as a whole.

Hernandez described the roots of these issues, claiming that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Sherriff’s Department are responsible for destroying arrest records. Hernandez referred to these destroyed records as “the rebel archives” which she said that she carefully fights and sues to obtain so that she can have her own record of people’s stories. When this process fails, Hernandez said she and her team of student panelists and executives create their own records. These records are documented narratives of those affected most by police incarceration and the voices of people who have fought against unjust mass incarceration. Hernandez then uses her oral histories to inform the community of the wrongdoings of the criminal justice system, in hopes to change law enforcement’s handling of detainees and choices of who and why to arrest.

Million Dollar Hoods prides itself in being a grassroots movement, intending to make a difference within the Los Angeles community and hopefully inciting a domino effect across the country, Hernandez said. They work to achieve this by reporting all the money wasted by law enforcement officers for unnecessary arrests due to ineffective law enforcement management.

Hernandez was also accompanied by Director of Public Policy Isaac Bryan and UCLA students of the Oral History and Ethnographic Research Division: Taylore Thomas (sophomore), DaMonte Jones (senior) and Sade Ajayi (sophomore).

Jones said that his interest in joining Million Dollar Hoods stemmed from his desire to give back to the community and his interest in public policy after he took a class at UCLA on the topic. He said the healing he finds for others and himself through conversations with people whose lives have been affected by law enforcement makes his work worth it. All three student panelists expressed their families’ direct involvement with the prison system.

“It’s not just about hearing their stories, it’s seeing how we can make a change,” Thomas said.

According to Hernandez, Million Dollar Hoods devised a specific methodology to their work: they first secure data by talking to clients and obtaining arrest records and case information that has been purged by either the LAPD or Sherriff’s department. These documents help the team learn more about their clients and pursue lawsuits against law enforcement.

Next, Million Dollar Hoods build community partnerships with both victims and sponsors, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Youth Coalition and JusticeLA. This builds a strong alliance and a grassroots movement within the community, Hernandez said. Finally, the team maps and reports the information they find regarding arrest records, areas of mass incarceration and types of arrests. They use this information to spread awareness of racialized incarceration in order to inform the public of what is going on within their community.

The Million Dollar Hoods student panelists unanimously agreed the best way to start a movement is to spread the word. Hernandez asked that people spread the intentions of her organization, as well as the purpose in order to hopefully start a revolution within communities.

“History doesn’t repeat itself — it rhymes,” Jones said.