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Aaron Hinton, outside his building in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He calls the war on drugs "the war on the poor." Photo: Natasha Haverty
Aaron Hinton, outside his building in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He calls the war on drugs "the war on the poor." Photo: Natasha Haverty

What if 10 percent of your neighbors went to prison downstate?

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The North Country has more than a dozen state and federal prisons, housing thousands of inmates. It turns out a lot of those inmates come from just a few neighborhoods, and those have been at the center of the 40-year drug war. Today, Brownsville, Brooklyn has one of the highest concentrations of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people in the country.

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Aaron Hinton meets me at a subway stop in Brownsville, his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He wears a red puffy jacket, bleached out jeans, and red suspenders. Brownsville’s a rough neighborhood—when it’s in the news, it's for shootings and robberies—and Aaron’s agreed to be my guide here. As we walk, old ladies stop to kiss him on the cheek – young guys reach for a quick handshake. 

Aaron is 29.  He’s a community organizer and activist here.

We pass storefront churches and shops, empty lots and boarded up windows. Looming over all of this: brick tower after tower of Brownsville’s public housing projects. Aaron points to the one he grew up in, then takes me around the corner to a brick elementary school, PS 150.

“I actually attended this school, as a child,” Aaron says. “And the school system has been failing our kids so much. If you look at the mass incarceration rate and you look at the school statistics, they’re almost in exact flip-flop.

Only 10 percent of the kids in public schools here will ever be college-ready. But almost as many – one in 12 – will wind up in jail or prison.

Aaron says the 40-year drug war in Brownsville has almost made spending time behind bars normal. “It’s subliminally attacking out minds and making us believe that socially this is acceptable. Or that means that this is what we’re supposed to do, that this is the guideline that I’m supposed to follow.”

That's why I'm here.  One out of every 50 men in New York’s prisons comes from Brownsville. Think about that: one in 50. The state of New York spends $40 million a year – and this has been going on for generations — locking up black and Hispanic men from this one neighborhood.

What does that do to a community?  

Aaron takes me up into the apartment tower he lives in with his aunt, Deborah Rochester. She’s been here since the 1970s when the drug war began.

“At one time out here, you would see so many women in the street where it was like, that’s all it is?”

Deborah was a little girl when drug sweeps were a part of everyday life in Brownsville and New York’s prison population soared.

Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1972. Photo: Winston Vargas
Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1972. Photo: Winston Vargas
“Because for a long time the men were going away for a lot of years, they was going away for a lot of years.”

And she says losing all those men, all those fathers and brothers, changed her neighborhood.

“We don’t have enough men in our families. You know at home…They got gone with the times. That’s the best way I can say it, the men got gone, as times changed so did our men, our men got gone.”

I hear this over and over from people I meet here – this sense of loss. Back out in the parking lot of Aaron’s building, we run into one of Aaron’s friends, Malik Mohammed, sitting in a parked SUV. I ask him what he thinks the drug war did to his neighborhood.

“Fatherless. That’s what it leaves you. A community with no fathers, no leadership. A fatherless community.”

“No masculine principals,” Aaron adds.

“Exactly, a fatherless community, that’s what you leave.”

Malik says everyone – politicians, reporters — likes to talk about the crime and the drugs in Brownsville.  

But he says no one’s asking the real questions about how things got like this – why people thought prisons were the answer to his community’s problems.

The state of New York spends 40 million dollars a year incarcerating people just from Brownsville, a two-square mile neighborhood in Brooklyn. Image courtesy of the Justice Mapping Center
The state of New York spends 40 million dollars a year incarcerating people just from Brownsville, a two-square mile neighborhood in Brooklyn. Image courtesy of the Justice Mapping Center
“See you have to—there’s an origin to everything. Everything has a root. You would have to explain how we fell victim to the trap of you coming—being able to set laws that would put that many men into the prison system. And to vacate their community. There’s a reason for that. And that has to be explained. The origin of that. The behavior. There’s things that lead up to that. I want to know how. Give me that. That’s what I want to know.”

Malik and Aaron want answers—they want an accounting of this history, they want their own truth commission. Because say the real story of this place isn’t drugs or crime — but poverty. The lack of opportunity.  

More than a third of Brownsville’s young men are unemployed. Forty percent of families here live below the poverty line. Every person I talk to about Brownsville tells me this is the real story. 

John Cutter is a retired deputy chief of the New York City police department. Brownsville was John Cutter’s beat for 11 years, and he says in a neighborhood like Brownsville, where there aren’t many businesses or industries, drugs became the cash economy.

Cutter says the average person he saw getting arrested and sent away for 10 or 20 years wasn’t a kingpin, but a young guy who made a mistake.

“And, unfortunately with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, even if he wanted to correct himself, it was too late.”

Today, those Rockefeller-era policies are being scaled back and for the first time in decades, New York’s prison population is going down, sentences for drug crimes are getting shorter.

But Cutter says those policy decisions –forty years of America’s drug war – are still playing out in Brownsville.

“When you come out, what’s the percentage of people that are willing to give you another opportunity who are going to say you know what I’m going to give you a chance to work for me in a store in a construction environment, in whatever environment. How many people are willing to give them that chance and I think that’s where the laws really hurt, because individuals who did make the mistakes—and really it was more a mistake of the heart, not of the head—they didn’t get that opportunity.”

The tough drug laws that swept up so many of Brownsville’s men weren’t created in a vacuum.  People in Brownsville tell me about the years when you heard gunfire every night, saw addicts shooting up heroin and smoking crack right out in the open.  I stop into a soup kitchen a few blocks from Aaron’s apartment where two older guys, Bernard Orson and Ashkar Sharif Mohamed, are eating dinner.

They say the crack epidemic tore Brownsville apart.

“That’s when that crack cocaine came. And people were doing everything and anything to get it.” Bernard says. “And when the crack coc came, it seemed like friends, having a friend? Seemed like it didn’t even exist.”

Ashkar jumps in: “People were selling their whole living room sets, dining room sets, their whole houses empty. They sold their own beds to sleep on.”

Bernard and Ashkar tell me Brownsville is safer now and cleaner—that that nightmare is over. Brownsville still has the highest homicide rate, and a lot of drug arrests. But they say it doesn’t feel like the whole place might just sort of unravel. But they also tell me, that the tough drug laws didn’t do anything to make it better here. 

So I track down Ric Curtis, an anthropologist who’s lived in Brownsville for twenty four years. And I ask him this same question – did the drug war do anything to help this community? 

But like everyone else I talk to here, Curtis is convinced that the collateral damage from the war on drugs – the damage to families and the fabric of the neighborhood – outweighed any good.

“When you send someone away for 15 years or 10 years or something like that, it really affects the community in that you become a nonperson to them. And when you come back, you can reestablish yourself but it’s not like anyone’s holding a place for you, or remembering you. The collective memory of you fades, you know?”

This idea, that the drug war crippled many poor, high-crime communities, is gaining traction – even with some of the nation’s top law enforcement leaders.

Aaron says he wants to be here for the day there are reasons to come to Brownsville. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Aaron says he wants to be here for the day there are reasons to come to Brownsville. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder told NPR it’s time to rethink the kind of laws that swept up so many of Brownsville’s men: “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old...There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There has been kind of a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

Back on the street with Aaron, the sun has set.  There’s one more thing here he wants me to see.

It turns out there’s a prison right here in his neighborhood – a youth jail for kids 10 to 15 years old– run by the city.  It looks like a fortress, with high stone walls and huge metal doors.

“I don’t know anything that goes on in this building to be honest.  I really make a point not even to walk down this block. I don’t think, you know if I wasn’t doing this with you, I try my best to stay away from here. Because it almost disgusts me to know that this thing is sitting in my neighborhood.”

Aaron says it’s not just about this jail. It’s about all those prisons. It’s about the millions of dollars going every year to house inmates—money that’s not going to programs, or vocational schools, or new businesses here.

He points to an empty lot across the street, as big as a baseball field. A dead tree leans into the dark. “This whole empty lot right!? And this is the thing so much space potential out here in Brownsville, and nothing’s being done.”

Aaron’s convinced that the drug war failed Brownsville, that it damaged this place in ways that we don’t understand yet.  But he’s also convinced that there are solutions for his neighborhood.

He says there are real people here, people with families, and good ideas, and hopes for their children. “You know cause the reality is that everyone cannot make it out of the hood,” Aaron says. “So, being that everyone’s not gonna make it out, how about we just make it better where we are.”

Aaron says he wants to be here for the day when those empty spaces get filled—when there is something to come here for. Ahead of us on the sidewalk, a father, still in his suit coat, plays with his son. Over Pitkin Ave, the word “Welcome” is spelled out in white lights.

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