Where you live along the Heroin Highway heavily influences how you’ll be treated by the law. For decades, both Michael and Harold struggled with addiction before they were able to get clean, a fact that speaks to a universal need for better recovery options. Taking very different routes to their freedom, both men ultimately overcame painful addictions before those addictions took their lives. But that is where their parallels end. Their stories illustrate that race and class—so often fused with residential geography—are determining forces at nearly every level of the criminal justice system. Whereas Michael’s story shows how white skin, ample finances, and influential networks can serve as protective factors for those breaking the law, Harold’s experience shows what happens in the absence of those protections—and in the presence of the temptations facing youth and young adults on the West Side to enter the business of illegal drugs. As their stories illustrate, a vast disparity exists between the experiences of low-income African American dealers and their customers who come to them from outside suburbs and towns.[i]


The differences between Michael’s and Harold’s journeys are indicative of much larger patterns. The incarceration rate for blocks on Chicago’s predominantly black West Side are typically tenfold that of Chicago’s highest-incarceration blocks in white communities. Adding the blocks up, the incarceration rate in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood adjacent to Austin, is “forty-two times higher than the highest-ranked white community on incarceration (4,226 vs. 103 per 100,000).”[ii] As sociologist Robert Sampson declares, “this is a staggering differential even for community-level comparisons,” one that suggests entirely different social realities exist within the same city, created by policies and systems that are poles apart.


In the West Side’s 60644 zip code, between 2005 and 2009, there were 6,700 residents who were convicted and sentenced to prison. In neighboring Oak Park, just 311 residents were sentenced to prison in this period.[iii] The former number points to tens of thousands of years lost by Austin residents. Every prison sentence marks a forced migration trail, spanning living rooms, courtrooms, and prison cells, where punitive policies actively remake city blocks, disrupting households and shifting the ways many neighborhoods residents experience time.


As these numbers show, mass incarceration feeds on the punishment of people in places like Austin. In fact, Sampson and his colleague Charles Loffler have said the very term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer. According to them, the United States’ unparalleled rates of imprisonment are really the result of “concentrated incarceration,” meaning that a relatively small pool of neighborhoods accounts for the great majority of those imprisoned. In these predominantly black areas, poverty is high and dangerous survival strategies are abundant. Residents of these areas are more likely to be arrested, tried, and convicted of felony charges. Because of legislative shifts starting in the 1980s, once convicted these residents are more likely to be sent to prison and to stay there for years on end. Furthermore, once a prisoner is released, no matter where they might have lived prior, they are more likely to return to a neighborhood like Austin, thereby fueling a “revolving door” effect that further strains limited community resources.[iv]


Not only is incarceration itself geographically concentrated, so are the ripple effects of the punishment it carries, increasing depression and anxiety among all residents, regardless of their history with the criminal justice system.[v] We use the term “concentrated punishment” to describe how the effects of mass incarceration are experienced in places like Austin, where prison sentences are felt not just by the person behind bars but also by their neighbors, loved ones, and communities at large. However, the phrase “mass incarceration” is still helpful in describing a national criminal justice infrastructure that locks up nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.[vi] We use this phrase when referring to the laws, prison buildings, criminal justice professionals, and varied private interests that comprise this infrastructure. They are what gives incarceration its mass. And when describing how some places bear the brunt of this mass, we use the term concentrated punishment.





[1] For decades now, US drug policy has attempted to uproot drug addiction by punishing the frontline workers of the drug market, a fact that forever changed the life of Harold, his family, and millions like him. These joint disparities—in how people are treated based on their skin color and resources as well as in what counts as a serious crime—help to explain why, although African Americans are significantly less likely to abuse hard drugs, they “are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes.” Leah J. Welty et al. “Health Disparities in Drug- and Alcohol-Use Disorders: A 12-Year Longitudinal Study of Youths after Detention,”American Journal of Public Health106, no. 5 (2016): 872–80.

[ii]  Sampson, Great American City, 113.

[iii]Author’s tabulation of Circuit Court of Cook County convictions between 2005 and 2009. Data made available by Chicago Justice Project, “Convicted in Cook,” Chicago Justice Project, http://convictions.smartchicagoapps.org.

[iv]Todd R. Clear et al., “Predicting Crime Through Incarceration: The Impact of Rates of Prison Cycling on Rates of Crime in Communities,” document no. 247318, National Institute of Justice, 2014, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=269418.

[v]Mark L. Hatzenbuehle et al. “The Collateral Damage of Mass Incarceration: Risk of Psychiatric Morbidity Among Nonincarcerated Residents of High-Incarceration Neighborhoods,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 1 (2015): 138–43.

[vi]Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” press release, Prison Policy Initiative,March 14, 2017, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html.