Prison reform activist and author Kelly Lytle Hernández speaks on incarceration in LA

On Tuesday, April 18, Pomona College’s Ena H. Thompson Lectureship hosted Kelly Lytle Hernández for a lecture titled “Million Dollar Hoods: The Costs of Incarceration in Los Angeles.” 

Lytle Hernández is a professor of history, African American studies and urban planning at UCLA. The MacArthur Fellow has written multiple award-winning books on race, immigration and mass incarceration. Her lecture at Pomona focused on her newest project, Million Dollar Hoods, which documents the human and monetary costs of incarceration in LA.

Her lecture began by exploring why LA is home to the largest jail system in the world. She attributed its vast size to the jails being used as a means of labor control. 

“LA spend[s] money to round people up — but they’re gonna pay to do it. It comes at a deficit,” she said.

She also added that excessive spending on the prison industry follows a history of settler colonialism in LA. 

”It’s known as ‘the Aryan city of the Sun,’ as California historian Kevin Starr calls it,” she said. “This is how they’re selling LA.” 

With this in mind, Lytle Hernández arrived at her answer as to why LA has such a large prison industry. 

“This is a story of mass incarceration as mass elimination,” she said. “Of course, it’s not just happening in LA, but LA is the iconic white settler city, so you see it intensely here.” 

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 resonated with Lytle Hernández’s call for her listeners to get involved in the movement against mass incarceration and avoid “stay[ing] in the ivory tower.” 

“She talks about community engagement and I believe it,” he said. “It’s really refreshing to be able to see a guest scholar, someone at the top of their field who you also know gives a fuck.”

During her sabbatical, Lytle Hernández collected 54 million data points from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to inform the Million Dollar Hoods Project. In conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this data was later used to sue the LAPD.  

“Talk about life goals, right?” Lytle Hernández said of her data research.  

Near the end of the lecture, she invited the audience to participate in a movement tradition in which audience members say out loud the names of those whose lives were taken by the police. The audience repeated the names of 16 men who had been murdered at the hands of  LAPD officers. 

Lytle Hernández concluded with a reminder encouraging prison reform activists and students to care for themselves while supporting the movement. 

“Care isn’t when we step away from the movement,” she said. “All the love and the care and the tenderness that happens inside the movement, that’s for me where the care happens, by leaning in deeper to those relationships.”

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