LA MacArthur 'Genius' Kelly Lytle Hernandez takes on race and incarceration

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Kelly Lytle Hernandez. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

LA resident Kelly Lytle Hernandez is one of the newest winners of the MacArthur "Genius" grants. She'll receive $625,000 to pursue her work -- no strings attached. 

Lytle Hernandez studies the history of incarceration and immigrant detention practices in the US. She and a team of UCLA researchers mapped L.A. County in a project called Million Dollar Hoods, where they found that most of LA’s nearly $1 billion jail budget is spent on incarcerating many people in just a few neighborhoods.

"What we have found is that in more than 30 neighborhoods here in Los Angeles County, we are spending more than $1 million per year locking up local residents," she says. 

The top two charges in those 30-some neighborhoods are drug possession and DUI, and they need to be addressed as public health issues, Lytle Hernandez adds. 

These neighborhoods include Skid Row, South LA, Palmdale, and Lancaster. Lytle Hernandez believes that the Inland Empire will be included as her team maps more of California. 

"This is a very hopeful project -- that we have been pushed to the brink, that we have overspent and wasted public dollars on locking people up," Lytle Hernandez says. "And how are we going to better spend those moneys in particular on housing, on education, on mental health services, on family support services so we can build stronger, thriving, safer communities for all?"

Lytle has teamed up with UCLA students who were formerly incarcerated to create the project. She says many of these researchers grew up in the “million dollar hoods” they study.

Lytle Hernandez's earlier work includes two books about the history of the Border Patrol and the LA County jail system (all the way back to the 1770s). 

Lytle Hernandez says her books are part of her work to examine incarceration. Both books are "stories of how colliding histories of racial violence in the American West drove the rise of the carceral state across this region,” she says.

In "Migra!," Lytle Hernandez explains how the Border Patrol was established to broadly enforce federal immigration law. Then it changed to enforce the law against mostly Mexican immigrants, then increasingly Central American immigrants. 

The Border Patrol also wasn't envisioned to be as militarized as it is now. "When they were first established in May of 1924, it really was a bunch of local guys from the border region who were hired as officers, and told to go out there with a little booklet in their pocket to enforce this new thing called federal immigration restrictions that were comprehensive," Lytle Hernandez  says. "You've got to remember that in the 1920s, U.S. immigration law was effectively a whites-only immigration system. So anybody who did not fit the profile of a northern European immigrant was a suspect."

And in "City of Inmates," Lytle Hernandez argues that the origin story of mass incarceration has to do with the arrival of Anglo American migrants in the American West, their search for land, the criminalization and removal of indigenous populations, and genocide against California Indians. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney