Geography of jail time: new data reveals which DE communities are home to most incarcerated people
DELAWARE – New data from non-profit research group Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) is revealing which cities and towns most incarcerated Delawareans hail from. The report indicates that incarcerated Delawareans tend to come from lower income communities, and areas with higher Black and Brown populations. PPI also published a report on neighboring state, Maryland, which shows similar disparities.
Gathering the Data
PPI Communications Director Mike Wessler says a 2010 law passed by the Delaware General Assembly paved the way for the data to be gathered.
“The Census Bureau incorrectly counts incarcerated people as residents of a prison cell, not of their actual communities. This goes against common sense for a lot of different reasons,” said Wessler. “Under Delaware law, every ten years when the state does its legislative redistricting, it now counts incarcerated people as residents of their home, where they should be counted.”
Looking at the Numbers
Upon learning about the data, lawmakers say while the numbers are troubling, they don’t come as a shock.
“The people in our prisons are often the population of people who are forgotten about, or who are deemed less worthy, and what happens to them doesn’t matter to people,” said State Senator Marie Pinkney. “Although the report was heart-wrenching, it was unsurprising. I think when we’re talking about these types of communities, we’re talking about communities that have been historically disinvested in.”
In Seaford, 748 per 100,000 residents are locked up. In Dover, 680 per 100,000 city residents are incarcerated. And, it’s the same trend for smaller communities like Laurel, with 1,227 per 100,000 residents behind bars.
“The notion that mass incarceration is just a problem of the big cities is a myth. It’s just not true. It’s a problem that harms each and every community across each and every state in this country,” said Wessler. “A lot of the reasons that this is the case are similar to those in big cities.”
The reasons behind the numbers are varied and far-reaching, says Sen. Pinkney. She cites issues like under funded school districts, environmental injustice, lower access to economic opportunity, health care disparities, and over policing.
“I don’t think anything about this report should be shocking to anyone. I think this report is simply the written version of what we already know happens to communities when we historically disinvest in them,” said Sen. Pinkney. “I also think it tells us that our criminal justice system relies heavily on imprisonment, when we could be focusing on diversion programs, programs that invest in these communities, and prevention programs.”
The ACLU of Delaware echoes those concerns. In a statement, Haneef Salaam, Delaware Campaign for Smart Justice Manager stresses the harm of over policing.
Rehabilitation and Prevention
Wessler says that’s where data like PPI’s comes into play on the ground level. He says it could serve as a valuable tool for local organizations that aim to help incarcerated individuals and underserved communities.
“We think that non-profit organizations that provide services can provide services to people who are returning to these communities [from incarceration],” he said. “These organizations can make sure that there are supportive services; things like housing, job opportunities, economic assistance that are in these communities that people are going to return to, so that they are successful.”
However, the work doesn’t start when formerly incarcerated individuals come home, says Wessler. He says it should start before they are ever pulled in the criminal justice system. “That’s ensuring access to a quality education, making sure they’re not living in dire poverty. Most importantly though, we think that this is data that can be used by policy makers and government officials,” said Wessler.
The Fabric of the Community
Sen. Pinkney says to battle those inequitable numbers, lawmakers must step up and bring incarcerated individuals’ voices with them. “I think that it’s really easy to look at this and blame the person or the people who get caught up in the system. But, I also believe that there is responsibility that falls on our state and our country to make sure we don’t have communities that are suffering as a result of higher criminalization,” she said.
And while mass incarceration can have detrimental impacts on individuals, Wessler says it harms their respective communities as a whole, as well. “Some of these communities see 1% of their population, one out of every hundred people, taken out of their community and shipped to another part of the state. That weakens the fabric of the community,” he said.
The focus on eliminating such disparities, and lifting up communities impacted by mass incarceration, has been on the forefront for Sen. Pinkney and her colleagues for years, she says.
“We already know from history that getting tough on crime does not work,” said Sen. Pinkney. “I think if we really want to impact communities and make a change in the numbers that this report showed us, what we really should be doing is investing more in our schools, our community centers, getting environmental issues out of communities, making sure that people have access to jobs and transportation.”
But, Sen. Pinkney says even with past improvements made, much more work is left to be done. “I think what we’ll see in the next couple of years is that will continue to happen. But, we’re talking about historic disinvestment, and these aren’t things that change overnight,” she said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of this legislation. It’s just going to take some time to turn around the communities that we have not put this kind of investment into for a really long time.”