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The Gentrification-to-Prison Pipeline

Many of the incarcerated have this in common — they start out as casualties of “redevelopment.”

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Part of the Series

This story is the fifth piece in the Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series dives deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.

When I was asked to write something “personal” about being sentenced to a prison term of 52 to 80 years, and the time I have served thus far, I was torn. During the last 23 years of having to always chase after something, hide something and hold my ground against something or someone, I have always shied away from autobiographical ways of speaking and writing about this real-life nightmare. But I believe personal stories like mine are important because they give a human face to the pain and misery of imprisonment experienced by incarcerated people as a whole.

It’s a failure of both local and national media, as well as institutions of higher learning, that an essay such as this is even thought to be necessary. Our society has massively launched onto a path of caging and torturing an unprecedented number of men, women and children, and the people who are supposed to critique and shed light on this draconian practice have largely neglected to do so, at least in a way that is commensurate to the crisis.

From time to time there is reporting on some major problem of imprisonment, but in my opinion, the reporting rarely conveys the connection between the specific crises they describe and the root cause of imprisonment itself. For example, in relation to the US leading the world in imprisonment, many issues have been the subject of investigative inquiry, including the disproportionate number of imprisoned poor people; long-term consequences, such as the making of a permanent underclass; the expected cycle of imprisonment from generation to generation; the decline in births among groups that are overrepresented in America’s many jails and prisons; the school-to-prison pipeline; the connection between race and imprisonment; and the pay-to-play nature of the criminal justice system. But few of these matters are linked directly to the imperatives of economic expansion, monopoly capitalism, imperialism and the pursuit of super-profits. The net result is a lack of clarity.

By telling my own story — a story shared by the many working-class Detroit residents who were forcefully displaced through the brutal “redevelopment” of the city’s Cass Corridor area — I hope to shed some much-needed light on how the capitalist profit motives that drive gentrification are a core cause of mass incarceration in this country.

City Planners Wreak Disaster on the Cass Corridor in Detroit

I first learned about people, about cruelty, about forced sacrifices, about being a hard worker [to build a life for others], about who is and isn’t important, and about fair speech and diabolical actions during the 1980s and 1990s, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, under conditions of gentrification. I saw with my own eyes how economic and social development dismantled the downtown Cass Corridor area and created internal refugees of American citizens, many of whom join me in here, in prison.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cass Corridor was suffused with vibrancy, joy and a tolerance of others that was clearly connected with Detroiters’ self-esteem and a general sense of optimism about the future. When Detroiters elected their first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974, first-time home ownership was at an all-time high, and conflicts that plagued Detroit’s labor movement for over half a century appeared to be resolved. Then life changed.

I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests.

It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. Vehicles that swept city streets and removed trash could be seen broken down on the side of the road. The stench from mountains of trash was unbearable. Two of the three supermarkets that provided food to the 2,000 or so residents of the Cass Corridor were burned down, never to be rebuilt. The city shut off power lines needed to keep the street lights on, giving a whole new meaning to the word darkness. Then, many men in the neighborhood took to scrapping, and the power lines were the first to go. At night on some streets, it was impossible to see three feet in any direction. I don’t think anyone felt safe, including myself. Three of the area’s four schools — Burton Elementary, James Couzens Elementary and Jefferson Junior High — looked more like abandoned factories than places of learning. Disinvestment made it appear as if every essential service required for a decent and safe living had come under rocket fire.

The immediate objective seemed to be to create unlivable conditions. The longer-term objective seemed to be to force us out of the Cass Corridor so it could be “renewed,” the new phrase at the time meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. To accomplish these twin goals, city officials became the linchpin of a strategy that involved radically reducing municipal spending — including spending on health, education and welfare — combined with giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on imprisoning many of the casualties of renewal.

I knew we were being pushed out but was clueless about what to do to push back. I just accepted the fact that we were being uprooted. Families were being broken apart and social stability was being destroyed. I did not have much help, not even from my parents. Both were incapacitated: My mother was dependent on drugs and my father was in prison. I had to improvise and fell into a lot of desperate activity. I learned how to make do with whatever resources were around — wit, audacity, determination and the drug trade. It was a confusing time. A climate of heavy-handed abusive policing intensified as the police attempted to run us out of the Cass Corridor. Eventually, Detroit police arrested me and my decades of incarceration began.

Gentrification’s Human Costs

When Detroit mayors Coleman Young and Dave Bing began to publicly acknowledge the need for the city to both shrink and radically reinvent itself, they [were] committing to additional outcomes besides “economic and social development.” Where were we, the poor, working class, predominantly Black population, supposed to go after being pushed out? A few families relocated and found housing in other parts of Detroit. A few moved to other cities. A tiny fraction moved to other states. But the overwhelming majority of families could not just up ad relocate. Some were housed in shelters and others [in] emergency placements. Many became homeless, living in makeshift tents that were considered eyesores and nuisances, and ultimately targeted for forced removal.

Foreclosing on mortgages, canceling leases and raising rents to prices that longtime residents could not afford, and thus forcing them to relocate, in some case was not necessary.

Foreclosing on mortgages, canceling leases and raising rents to prices that longtime residents could not afford, and thus forcing them to relocate, in some case was not necessary. Removal didn’t exclusively mean physical displacement. There was also cultural displacement. For example, it was a different kind of forced removal that took place when my friends and I did not feel welcome in houses of worship and social clubs built primarily to cater to white dispositions and cultures, or when we did not feel welcome in restaurants and retail stores built to cater primarily to affluent tastes and lifestyles.

The Cass Corridor became the shining example of how urban renewal could supposedly benefit Detroit. But before the 1980s came to a close, the emptiness of that claim was clearly apparent. The Cass Corridor virtually became a ghost town. There were two basic factors to explain this: first, the absence of an income-generating strategy for the poor and working-class people who historically took up residency there, and second, the absence of a democratic system by which area residents could participate in decision-making about the neighborhood. We were cut out of decision-making about the future of the place where we lived, learned, worked, loved, dreamed, created and did our best to resolve conflicts surrounding our lives. Perhaps we should ask society: What did all this development really mean?

How does gentrification alter the experience of everyday life? How does it affect the concepts of social participation, community and self-worth? How does it change education, work, family life and leisure? What are the implications for the environment, human health and disease? How does it serve to homogenize subcultures, or on the contrary, does it promote diversity and inclusiveness? And considering that gentrification (capitalist-sponsored development) influences competition, who gains and who loses?

Every plan to gentrify a neighborhood or section of a city will necessary have predetermined destructive effects.

This does not mean that all “development” is undesirable — but rather that every plan to gentrify a neighborhood or section of a city will necessary have predetermined destructive effects. It also means that social planners, policy makers, bankers, venture capitalists, elected officials, corporations and others who partake in gentrification schemes are aware of the consequences of such development, but choose not to share these consequences with the public. These consequences are often hidden from investigative inquiry through the imprisonment of those who are displaced. I call this the gentrification-to-prison pipeline.

The Direct Line From Displacement to Incarceration

Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. I was either stopped, arrested and/or conveyed to the police station once or twice a month for the entire 10 years I lived in and frequented the Cass Corridor, supposedly for “identification purposes,” by regular beat police. Mind you, these same beat police worked the area for decades and were familiar with me, my friends and extended members of my family. I was told that if I did not like the treatment, I could always move.

A number of comprehensive studies admit that neighborhoods in Detroit, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Chicago, among other places that have undergone gentrification, created large populations of internal refugees and displaced and disappeared people. Unfortunately, these studies do not say to where they disappeared.

A much more nuanced understanding of the social role of “redevelopment” is required in order for society to give up the usual way of thinking about imprisonment being the inevitable consequences of crime. For many of my friends and neighbors and me, imprisonment did not result from inevitable “crime,” but rather imprisonment was linked to the agendas of social planners, politicians and real estate developers, and resulted due to the extraordinary powers given to the police and courts.

Years after I was imprisoned, local newspapers and television stations began reporting that according to the FBI’s uniform Crime Report for 1998, one in every 13 murder arrests in the United States was made by Detroit police. Several investigations were launched around what were called dragnet arrests. These involved mass roundups and lockups of any potential witnesses until they talked. And if they did not talk, many were beat[en] and charged with manufactured crimes, like I was.

On July 8, 1994, I regret not running when I saw the roundup vans coming. Normally I would have, not because I had done anything wrong, but at a minimum, I knew I would be harassed. I never imagined I would be locked up, beaten up and charged for a crime of which I had no knowledge. The state’s star and only witness was a jailhouse informant who testified in numerous cases claiming to have received uncoerced confessions. If that is not unbelievable and tragic enough, the same thing also happened to several dozen other Cass Corridor residents who disappeared around the time I did.

The city of Detroit’s approach to “social development” came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective.

The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the “limits of development” did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to “social development” came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.

Social development, urban renewal and the like are just new words for what sociologists in the past called imperialism.

If we are willing to take seriously the consequences of a justice system that is the extension of money and power, it should not be difficult to reach the conclusion that enormous numbers of people are in prison simply because someone else’s vision for the future did not include them. We were sent to prison not so much because of the crime we may have indeed committed, but largely for the expropriation of land (i.e., gentrification), which requires getting rid of the people who live on the land. Social development, urban renewal and the like are just new words for what sociologists in the past called imperialism, and what we can loosely refer to as colonialism. Gentrification and colonialism are the same processes largely because they share the same goals — dislocation, expropriation and the pursuit of profit.

My community’s experiences suggest that gentrification can and often does have substantial impacts on citizens returning to the larger society. Almost 25 years later, many of those who were forced out of the Cass Corridor and relocated to Michigan prisons are now being released. Released not only to a world that has technologically left them behind (as prison offers little more than a GED), but to a Cass Corridor that has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to education, housing, recreation and social services for working-class and poor people, prison’s majority clientele. People are being released into a permanent undercaste: This is how gentrification succeeds in disappearing working-class and poor people to make way for a more affluent population.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander writes that “prisoners returning ‘home’ are typically the poorest of the poor, lacking the ability to pay for private housing and routinely denied public assistance.” In other words, those of us who are able to get out usually lack access to the type of assistance that could provide some much-needed stability in our lives. Alexander goes on to write that “for them ‘going home’ is more of a figure of speech than a realistic option.” Gentrification not only forces people out but also prevents them from coming back. In moving toward a more complete understanding of why imprisonment patterns have been so persistent, we cannot limit our attention to characteristics of individuals and families, to policies targeting individual poverty, or to macro-level forces leading to growing income inequality. We must also consider places. We must consider the various forces that affect neighborhoods, cities and the ways that the trajectories of people and places are connected over time.

The conditions and circumstances that influenced my imprisonment have helped me to think outside the conventional framework of prison abolition. I believe we will only rid society of prisons when we also find a way to abolish gentrification.

Prison abolition has to be seen in the context of the broader set of economic and political forces that have served to maintain imprisonment trends for the last several decades. Abolishing the gentrification-to-prison pipeline requires us to take on the founding of a new society.

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