How Gentrification Fuels Mass Incarceration

Stephanie Michelle

When rich people move in, the poor are pushed out — often forcefully

Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images

When 19-year-old Lacino Hamilton was sentenced to 52–80 years in prison and spent four years in solitary confinement, he hadn’t committed a crime commonly associated with such a harsh sentence. In fact, he hadn’t committed a crime whatsoever.

As the victim of a scheme to incarcerate poor people of color in an area of Detroit that was gentrifying, Lacino was falsely convicted of having committed a murder he wasn’t involved in. He was only one of many longtime residents displaced from Detroit’s Cass Corridor to make way for wealthier, largely white residents, who flocked to the rapidly gentrifying area in the 1990s.

It’s commonly known that gentrification uproots low-income residents and businesses from their homes as developers transform neighborhoods to cater to middle- and upper-class residents. Over the past several decades, gentrification has transformed many American cities, and its effects on impoverished and minority communities have been overwhelmingly negative.

The process of gentrification generally involves several distinct stages. The first stage involves “government and market disinvestment in either an urban or suburban area.” This is followed by “white flight,” as the white middle class deserts the area.

For example, in the 1980s, white middle-class residents deserted Philadelphia and Baltimore to flee deindustrialization and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs, high crime rates, and suffering schools. This left these cities with a substantially higher proportion of minorities.

In the next stage, young adults and artists flow into the area, seeking jobs and affordable housing, and the conception of the optimal home environment among the white and middle-class population is reversed. According to Casey Kellogg of San Jose University, “The recent inversion in popular preference, leaving suburbia to create the ideal home in the city, has been well documented.”

In the final stage, an influx of white professionals return, and developers reinvest in the area in an effort to “clean it up” to please white residents.

Although gentrification is commonly seen as controversial, many are unaware of the intimate relationship between gentrification, mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

For instance, the new, predominantly white, and wealthier residents in gentrifying areas are more likely to report behaviors previously considered normal — like noise, loitering, and people spending time in the street — which disproportionately affects minorities in the community who are accustomed to engaging in these activities without penalties.

These longtime residents are then more frequently accused of “quality of life” crimes and violating nuisance laws. When new white residents make 911 and 311 calls to report these behaviors, the longtime minority residents are more heavily surveilled by police and ultimately become entangled in the criminal justice system.

According to Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., a higher frequency of misdemeanor arrests is more indicative of a heavy police presence than the frequency of infractions in the area.

The influx of wealthier residents into gentrifying areas also causes landlords and property owners to raise rents and housing prices to maximize their profits at the expense of the community’s welfare. Longtime residents are then uprooted from the community due to mortgage foreclosures, canceled leases, and rents that have skyrocketed to the point of unaffordability.

Lacino Hamilton contends that the prioritization of profits over the interests of communities results in what he calls the “gentrification-to-prison pipeline,” wherein marginalized communities are rendered homeless, then rounded up and incarcerated because the capitalist system offers no other way of accommodating them.

The members of the displaced homeless population are ultimately forced to relocate because they’re considered eyesores or nuisances. If they lack the means to do so, they’re arrested and effectively disappeared rather than provided with affordable housing.

Additionally, in neighborhoods that have become gentrified, hot-spot policing — which targets places with the “highest concentrations of crime” — tends to become more prevalent. This practice often criminalizes behaviors more common among racial minorities. Broken-windows policing, an approach that involves targeting minor crimes under the guise that it’ll most effectively prevent major ones, also tends to proliferate in gentrifying areas.

This approach to policing legitimizes police officers’ racist practices of disproportionately arresting people of color for the same behaviors white residents aren’t arrested for. Police accountability groups contend that this intensified police surveillance provides comfort to new, wealthier white residents and to the detriment of longtime, poorer residents.

This phenomenon is also manifested in the increased police presence in schools, which contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline by making minority students more likely to be suspended or expelled, even for minor infractions like skipping class or expressing disrespect.

According to NBC, nearly 97% of school suspensions in Texas were for “subjective reasons, made at the discretion of school administrators.” Alarmingly, Black students are also 31% more likely than white students to be subjected to these discretionary suspensions, and they’re three times more likely to be suspended or expelled relative to white students.

“Schools with police officers have five times as many arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without them,” NBC states. Therefore, the pressure to bring more police to gentrifying areas ultimately results in more marginalized students being funneled into the criminal justice system.

Experts propose that the incarceration of these students can be reduced by replacing school officers with additional guidance counselors and offering more equal educational opportunities.

Although conservatives often equate gentrification with economic growth and “revitalization” or “urban renewal,” it conveniently makes underserved groups invisible by pushing them into the criminal justice system.

Resolving this problem will require no less than the complete dismantling of the white supremacist capitalist system that continues to neglect the welfare of marginalized communities.

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Writer, editor, and leftist activist with writing in The Correspondent, Wear Your Voice, Adios Barbie, etc. Endlessly fascinated by the complexities of human minds and cultures. Currently completing my MA in Anthropology.


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