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Which San Diego areas are hit hardest by mass incarceration?

The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is shown on April 13, 2022.
Zoe Meyers
The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is shown on April 13, 2022.

Incarceration impacts all of San Diego County — but some communities are more affected than others.

New data from the Prison Policy Initiative shows 8,800 residents of San Diego County were living in California state prisons at the time of the 2020 U.S. Census. And a disproportionate number of them are coming from Southern San Diego neighborhoods.

Imprisonment has the greatest impact on communities with more people of color, the data shows. In City Heights, Barrio Logan, Encanto and Southeast San Diego, incarceration rates are roughly double the state average.


Meanwhile, residents in Encinitas, La Jolla and Coronado — some of the wealthiest areas of the county — are about half as likely as the average Californian to be living behind bars.

The disparity doesn’t come as a surprise to Laila Aziz, the director of operations at Pillars of the Community, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice reform. She said San Diego’s communities of color have long been overrepresented in jails and prisons.

“You’re still having a disparity in Black and brown folks being sentenced more harshly and for longer time periods,” Aziz said.

The new data provides one of the clearest pictures yet of how imprisonment affects California communities. It was compiled after the state passed a historic law to end “prison gerrymandering,” which classified incarcerated people as residents of the towns they are imprisoned in, rather than the towns they come from.

Criminal justice reform groups have long sought to end the practice, arguing it inflates the U.S. Census counts for locations with more prisons, which are often rural with small populations. Those totals are used to draw regional boundaries and can impact state legislative districts.


“You’re giving rural towns overrepresentation,” Aziz said.

Incarceration has been linked to higher rates of poverty, mental illness and adverse health conditions. It can have a multi-generational impact on families.

Advocacy groups say prison gerrymandering hides the real impact of mass incarceration on the communities left behind when its residents are serving time — and takes away voting power from those districts.

The 2020 U.S. Census is the first time the state’s new law has been implemented. Aziz said the reform helps address an important problem, but pointed out that people in California prisons are still not eligible to vote.

“It’s a decrease of power, and it’s purposeful,” Aziz said.

Criminal justice reform groups say more work needs to be done to prevent the underlying causes of incarceration and to help people reenter society when they return from jail or prison.

“You’re over-sentencing them,” Aziz said. “They’re coming back with worse issues than what they had, and yet they’re told to be better. And that’s how it harms our community.”

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