What happens when you go from city block to jail block and back?

Written by

On the corner of Budlong and Manchester, the air smells like warm laundry and fried chicken. A church and a few small businesses cluster around this intersection, dominated by a large KFC sign on one side and the Manchester Coin Operated Laundry on the other. In the middle of the day, there isn’t much shade around.

Recently, forty-year-old Rahman Abdallah sat at the bus stop on the south side of the street, trying to stay out of the heat and out of trouble. Abdallah said he’s on parole until next summer, after serving a prison sentence for illegally owning a gun.

Like many people I spoke with in this neighborhood, he said his criminal record has prevented him from finding work. “If you try to do better with your life but they won’t let you then you just revert back to the same thing you [were doing] when you went to jail,” he said. “You just continue the cycle.”

(Subscribe to Off the Block, a new podcast from KCRW that explores how LA’s jail system is affecting the county’s neighborhoods.)

Rahman Abdallah (Photo: George Lavender)
Rahman Abdallah (Photo: George Lavender) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Between 2010 and 2015, this four-by-two block area of South Los Angeles accounted for hundreds of bookings into Los Angeles County Jails. Abdallah has seen the impact firsthand: “Kids losing their parents, now they’re going even more wayward,” he said. “Parents losing their way, because once you get out of jail you can’t get no job.”

Los Angeles has the largest jail system in the country.

At any one time, about 17,000 people are incarcerated in one of several facilities run by the County Sheriff’s Department. The people in those jails come from all over the city and county.

Until recently, there wasn’t a good way to determine which neighborhoods are most affected by incarceration in Los Angeles. But a team from UCLA has been working on building a map to show how many arrests there are per census block.

Westmont, where Rahman Abdallah lives, is one of the neighborhoods with a very high number of arrests. But parts of Long Beach, Downtown Los Angeles, as well as whole swaths of Lancaster and Palmdale also stand out.

“Really there’s no community that’s totally exempt,” said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a history professor at UCLA who has been working on the project.

Using data from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department, Lytle Hernandez and the team have been building up a picture of Los Angeles, a place Lytle Hernandez calls America’s “carceral capital.”

“Off the Block,” a new podcast series from KCRW, traces the effects of the county jail system on Los Angeles from city block to jail block and back.