Mass incarceration

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Mass incarceration is a term used by historians and sociologists to describe the substantial increase in the number of incarcerated people in the United States’ prisons over the past forty years.[1] The prison population of the United States dwarfs the prison populations of every other developed country in the world, including countries like China and Russia.[2] Since 1985, the number of people imprisoned in the United States has risen drastically. "Although the United States makes up only 5% of the world's population, it now accounts for one-quarter of the world's prisoners", and the majority of this population is made up from either minorities, teenagers, women, or the elderly.[3] Michelle Alexander describes mass incarceration as "the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison."[2] The 13th amendment rendered slavery illegal with the exception of prisoners. After slavery, many laws were passed in order to target the black populations in America, such as the Jim Crow laws,[4] which were one of the many tools used that allowed for the marginalization of black people and led to mass incarceration.[4] For example, a grant was filed in 1995 that offered a monetary reward to prisons that increased their prison population.[5] Gilda Graff theorizes that this has become the case because the people with the privilege and power to stop it are ashamed of slavery. Whether they are ashamed of profiting from slavery or coming from slaves, the shame obfuscates the problem.[4]

Though the prison population of United States dwarfs that of other countries, there has been studies that show that some European countries following the steps of the United States like Portugal and Hungary. Like the United States these countries have followed the same trend with incarcerating large percentages of their minorities and communities of color. From the African American population in the United States, the Aboriginal in Australia or the Romany in Europe, the communities of color are the ones suffering from these high incarceration rates.[6]

According to historians[7], social scientists, and scholars, mass incarceration began in the 1960s and 1970s with a rise in “tough-on-crime” approaches to criminal justice and with deliberate policy choices that impose intentionally punitive sentences.[8][9] This approach has increased both the numbers of people entering the criminal justice system and how long they remain under correctional control.[10] Activists and academics against mass incarceration have argued for ending the "War on Drugs", eliminating racial disparities in criminal justice, ending the privatization of prisons, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration."[10] Legislation that was originally passed to ease the burden of overcrowded prisons was warped by mass incarceration. Costello v. Wainwright attempted a solution to overcrowded prisons by allowing the state to build more prisons. With the changing political climate and "Law and Order" politicians, this legislation became precedent to continually build prisons and exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration instead of solving it.[11]

Much of the justice system has been criticized for its approach to incarceration, as the number of people incarcerated for non-violent offenses is large.[12] For example, in 2016 out of the 2.4 million people incarcerated 15,000 of them were minors, 12,000 of which were jailed for offenses most Americans would not even consider a crime. They are behind bars because of technical violations. Technical violations constitute not being able to meet probation or parole requirements. 3,000 minors are behind bars for status offenses, that for adults would not even be considered crimes such as truancy, running away, and incorrigibility.[13] Some critics say Mass Incarceration is a way to further stratify the country along racial lines. The way in which being a felon alters one's life qualifies as a way they become a stratified class of people.[14] Disadvantaged social groups are more likely to go to prison, and the prison population in a way reflects their lack of privilege.[14] It stratifies people by incapacitating them in prison, and making them unable to labor and contribute to society through their work. Eroding their ability to work and properly socialize enforces their position and stigmatization in society.[14] Many of the incarcerated are under educated, and while are typically employed at the time of their arrest, come out of prison with a whole new barrier towards gainful employment.[14] Critics also argue that some low income neighborhoods have about 15% of young men cycling back and forth through prison. This large number of men coming and going destabilizes these neighborhoods. Coupled with housing restrictions, this serves to exacerbate crime in these areas.[14] Michelle Alexander states that many felons are not in prison but are instead on parole or probation and are unable to vote, get public housing or food stamps, and cannot obtain certain licenses for a variety of jobs.[2]


The United States’ prison population far exceeds the prison populations of every other developed country in the world. While the United States’ makes up 4.4% of the world population, the prison population accounts for 23% of the world’s incarcerated people.[15] The United States has 670 incarcerated people per 100,000 people. The next highest country is Russia, who incarcerates 439 people per 100,000. The United States has seen a 500% increase in the number of incarcerated people between 1985 and 2015. This drastic increase in the number of incarcerated people isn't due to a rise in crime rates, but rather to certain policies and legislation being passed that has had drastic effects on law enforcement agencies and judicial proceedings that have resulted in mass incarceration.[16]

Mass incarceration predominantly affects people of color. The rate of imprisonment for black men in 2015 was 2,613 per 100,000, was 1,043 per 100,000 for Latino men, yet it was a mere 457 per 100,000 for white men. In 2016, the United States population was 17% Latino and 13% African American. The two groups make up roughly 30% of the population but make up 60% of the United States prison population.[17][18] Growth in incarceration is largely "concentrated among young black males from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods".[19] Incarceration rates are at least five times higher for black males than for white males across every age group. One in five black males face incarceration at some point in their adult life. Since these numbers have shown that the prison industrial system disproportionately targets these communities, it is impossible to talk about mass incarceration without talking about its impact on minority communities.[19]

The War on Drugs, a policy that was put into place during the Nixon administration and was heightened during the Reagan administration, is considered to be a significant contributor to mass incarceration. In 1980, 40,900 people were incarcerated in the United States for drugs across state, federal, and local jails. In 2015, the number was 469,545, a 1048% increase over 35 years.[20] Drug offenses make up nearly half of the federal prison population but account for only 15.7% of those incarcerated in state prisons. Some argue that the War on Drugs hasn't played as much of a role in mass incarceration as people have theorized in the past, stating that we focus on the sheer number of people in prison for drug offenses federally and forget that federal prisons only hold 10% of the country's prison population.[21] However, the War on Drugs and its effects spanned far beyond policies and legislation regarding drugs – the overall message of the War on Drugs targeted people of color, demonized them in the media, and encouraged policies such as stop and frisk laws that disproportionately affected people of color and resulted in incarceration rates skyrocketing.[22]

The War on Drugs[edit]

Graph showing a growth in incarceration rates

Around the mid 1980s, the United States' entered a phase of extreme prison population growth which was largely driven by policies that aligned with the War on Drugs.[23][24] Several federal legislative initiatives passed during this period of time targeting drug offenders. "Not only did the likelihood of receiving a sentence to imprisonment increase dramatically for drug offenders over this period, but so too did the length of sentence they could expect to serve".[25] Before this period, American President Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs by working to criminalize the possession and use of drugs. Recently historians have traced some of the roots of this initiative earlier, to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.[7]

Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people ... We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities".[26] War on Drugs measures were later reinstated and expanded during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. President Reagan established the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. According to the Human Rights Watch, legislation like this led to the extreme increase in drug offense imprisonment and "increasing racial disproportions among the arrestees".[27]

References in popular culture[edit]

In relation to popular culture, mass incarceration has become a popular issue in the Hip-Hop community. Artists like Tupac Shakur, NWA, LL Cool J, and Kendrick Lamar have written songs and poems that condemn racial disparities in the criminal justice system, specifically the practice of police officers targeting African Americans. By presenting the negative implications of mass incarceration in a way that is widespread throughout popular culture, rap music is more likely to impact younger generations than a book or scholarly article would. Hip hop accounts of mass incarceration are based on victim-based testimony and are effective in inspiring others to speak out against the corrupt criminal justice system.[28]

In addition to references in popular music, mass incarceration has also played a role in modern film. For example, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film 13th, released in 2017, criticizes mass incarceration and compares it to the history of slavery throughout the United States, beginning with the provision of the 13th Amendment that allows for involuntary servitude "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The film delivers the staggering message that mass incarceration could be equated to the post-Civil War Jim Crow Era.[29]

The fight against mass incarceration has also been a part of the larger discourse in the 21st century movement for Black Lives. #BlackLivesMatter, a progressive movement created by Alicia Garza after the murder of Trayvon Martin, was designed as an online platform to fight against anti-black sentiments such as mass incarceration, police brutality, and ingrained racism within modern society. According to Garza, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” This movement has focused on specific racial issues faced by African Americans in the justice system including police brutality, ending capital punishment, and eliminating "the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth across all areas of society." [30]

School-to-prison pipeline[edit]

The term "school-to-prison-pipeline", also known as the "schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track", is a concept that was named in the 1980s. The school-to-prison pipeline is the idea that a school's harsh punishments—which typically push students out of the classroom—lead to the criminalization of students' misbehaviors and result in increasing a student's probability of entering the prison system.[31] Although the school-to-prison pipeline is aggravated by a combination of ingredients, zero-tolerance policies are viewed as main contributors.[32]

Zero-tolerance policies are regulations that mandate specific consequences in response to outlined student misbehavior, typically without any consideration for the unique circumstances surrounding a given incident.[33] Zero-tolerance policies both implicitly and explicitly usher the student into the prison track. Implicitly, when a student is extracted from the classroom, the more likely that student is to drop out of school as a result of being in class less. As a dropout, that child is then ill-prepared to obtain a job and become a fruitful citizen.[34] Explicitly, schools sometimes do not funnel their pupils to the prison systems inadvertently; rather, they send them directly.[35] Once in juvenile court, even sympathetic judges are not likely to evaluate whether the school's punishment was warranted or fair. For these reasons, it is argued that zero-tolerance policies lead to an exponential increase in the juvenile prison populations.[36]

The national suspension rate doubled from 3.7% to 7.4% from 1973 to 2010.[37] The claim that Zero Tolerance Policies affect students of color at a disproportionate rate is supported in The Code of Maryland Regulations study that found black students were suspended at more than double the rate of white students.[38] This trend can be seen throughout numerous studies of this type of material and particularly in the south.[39][40] Furthermore, between 1985 and 1989, there was an increase in referrals of minority youth to juvenile court, petitioned cases, adjudicated delinquency cases, and delinquency cases placed outside the home.[41] During this time period, the number of African American youth detained increased by 9% and the number of Hispanic youth detained increased by 4%, yet the proportion of White youth declined by 13%.[40] Documentation of this phenomenon can be seen as early as 1975 with the book School Suspensions: Are they helping children?[42]

Women in prison[edit]

Early imprisonment of women in the US[edit]

Historically, adultery and sexual deviance were considered punishable for women even if men faced no consequences. "During the early 1800s, people believed that women were incapable and unworthy of reform".[3] Imprisoned women were not provided with the same recourses and facilities as men, and were often not encouraged to work towards rehabilitation. "The 1920s and 1930s saw a shift in the perception of 'criminal women' as beyond help and the first institutions were opened specifically for women" [3] as they continued to be punished for biased "moral crimes".

Continued imprisonment[edit]

Even though the number of crimes committed by women has remained relatively constant, the rate of imprisonment has continued to increase. As of 1997 over 135,000 women in the United States were in prisons and jails. "More than 950,000 women were under correctional supervision in 1998, about 1% of the US female population. In the past decade, the numbers and proportions of women have increased in terms of all components of the system: jail, probation, parole, and prison".[43] Many state that this is a factor of increased incarceration in response to drug offenses. "Approximately 55% of women in prison are serving their first prison sentence. Although drug users are less likely to be imprisoned for violent offenses than non-drug users, women incarcerated for drug convictions are still likely to be placed in maximum-security facilities".[3] African American women are the largest group to be incarcerated as a result of drug crimes.[44]

No country in the world incarcerates more women than the United States, as shown by Statista in a 2013 study.

Women in prison are found to be more likely of having a record of mental illness than male inmates, perhaps as a result of substance abuse and the drugs for which they are incarcerated.[45] For the most part, these mental health and addiction issues prolong throughout the duration of their sentence, considering that at most 10% of women battling addiction are afforded the proper care needed to recover. Regarding their mental health, "According to a 1998 national survey, only two fifths of male and female jail inmates with mental health problems received any help while incarcerated, and when help was offered it usually involved limited services such as 12-step groups. Although health care is a constitutional right for prisoners, many women behind bars receive inadequate or incompetent care".[43]

Many women also contract diseases after becoming exposed to them in the prison environment. Inmates can be detained for reasons ranging from shoplifting to prostitution, and even come from homelessness, which can cause higher exposure to diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Syphilis.[44][43] In addition, they are subject to all kinds of sexual and physical abuse from other inmates, and are unable to break free from it as a result of the inefficiency, or indifference, expressed by the administration of the institution. The wrongdoers often continue their attacks because they know that more than likely there will be no consequence.[46]

Longer sentences also affect women's life after prison, beginning with their families and homes. Maternal imprisonment affects children more harshly than the incarceration of their fathers. When the paternal figure of a home is convicted, children are affected, but they don't experience the same kind of attachment disparity as they do with their mothers. "When fathers go to prison, their children are more likely to remain in the care of their mothers; however, when mothers go to prison, not only are children separated from their mother but they more often transition to the care of a grandparent, or other family member, than to the care of their other parent ".[47] In the case that there is no family member able to take the children in, they are taken into non-familiar care. Children who grow up without their parents tend to have a higher chance of engaging in "substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, and abusive familial relationships".[47]

Social factors that play into women's imprisonment[edit]

While a significant number of women are imprisoned for minor offenses (i.e. drug-related crime, larceny), there are also many social factors that lead up to their detainment, particularly in women of color. "Given their history of social exclusion, it seems almost certain that the social condition African American women face prior to their incarceration is marked by extreme powerlessness. One such indicator is a history of sexual abuse both during their childhood years and as adults. Incarcerated African American women represent disproportionately higher rates of sexual abuse cases compared with women who have not been incarcerated". A history of physical or sexual abuse ranges from 40 to 73% of African American inmates.[44]

Women of color also feel pressured to fit into the 'norm' of what social life should be for women (i.e. be happily married, have a functional family, have a good job and a nice house). This often leads to their conforming and accepting abusive relationships or adapting to their partner's expectations. For example, women who suffer from substance abuse are mainly subjected to it by their partner. Studies showed that women, in fact, believe that engaging in such destructive activities would create a stronger emotional bond, as well as put a halt to the abuse they consistently endure. They assume that because their relationship is going downhill, it must be a failure on their part and decide to make a change, usually for the worse.[44]

The disadvantages of black men in society also affect the outcome of women; they have to take on the role of the breadwinner and often, when not making enough, lead to taking alternatives such as involvement with drugs, theft, and prostitution. This of course, leads to their incarceration. The "profile" that surfaces of the black female offender is "that of a young, uneducated, single mother. She is likely to be unemployed, with few marketable skills, and is more likely to be on welfare".[44] Female inmates were also described as “confined by social conditions in their communities, restrained by their families’ circumstances, severely limited by abuse in their intimate relationships, and forced to make hard choices with very few options”. They are characterized as “compelled to crime".[48]

Media portrayal of women's prison life[edit]

Despite all the things that incarcerated women endure prior to, during, and after their imprisonment, people often have a certain mindset regarding who they are. This is as a result of the inaccuracy the media uses to portray women who are detained; perpetuating the idea that there is nothing more to them than violence and sexual tension. The media's tendency to highlight the aspects of prison life that they deem suitable or entertaining for viewers really serves to belittle and shed attention away from the real issues that incarceration has on the women living their 'truth'. The way that these women are portrayed in the media is crucial to our understanding of their struggles and our ability to empathize with the traumatic experience that is serving time in prison. Instead, they are portrayed with a 'babes behind bars' theme.[49]

Films such as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Caged Heat (1974) are examples of movies that depict these women as sex-crazed and distort our knowledge from the more universal and serious issues that come with being incarcerated. Because we live in a patriarchal society, women are viewed as objects for intercourse, and their issues are not taken as severely as we would that of males.

"Very little factual representation is contained in these films. It is Hollywood, after all; they do not necessarily seek to educate—instead they aim to titillate:

These tales of vulnerable young things navigating a harsh prison are largely vehicles for money shot–style images that are the films’ raison d’être: a roomful of women being hosed down by their sadistic warden as punishment (1971’s Big Doll House) . . . or a young reform-school inmate gang-raped with a plunger by her roommates (1974’s Born Innocent)".[49]

Alternatives to mass incarceration[edit]

Despite the overall drop in the past decades, some experts credit the decline to factors such as "new policing techniques" and an "aging population" instead of mass incarceration. Many believe that mass incarceration is ineffective and costly. According to Vera institute of Justice, "$31,286 of taxpayer dollar" is spent on average for each inmate in state prisons. Some suggest a change in policy to jail low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill. Other alternatives include "pushing for electing reform-minded prosecutors, making it easier for prisoners to gain parole, and shortening sentences for some violent criminals".[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2016-11-20. 
  2. ^ a b c Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press. [page needed]
  3. ^ a b c d Worell, Judith (2001). Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender. A-K Volume 1. Academic Press. pp. 612–619. 
  4. ^ a b c Graff, Gilda (2015). "Redesigning the Racial Caste in America via Mass Incarceration". The Journal of Psychohistory. 
  5. ^ 13703. Violent offender incarceration grants, 42 USCA
  6. ^ Haney, Lynne A. (2010-01-01). "Working through Mass Incarceration: Gender and the Politics of Prison Labor from East to West". Signs. 36 (1): 73–97. doi:10.1086/652917. 
  7. ^ a b 1983-, Hinton, Elizabeth Kai,. From the war on poverty to the war on crime : the making of mass incarceration in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 9780674737235. OCLC 926061456. 
  8. ^ Fortner, Michael Javen (2014-03-01). "The "Silent Majority" in Black and White Invisibility and Imprecision in the Historiography of Mass Incarceration". Journal of Urban History. 40 (2): 252–282. doi:10.1177/0096144213508615. ISSN 0096-1442. 
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  11. ^ Schoenfeld, Heather (2010). "Mass Incarceration and the Paradox of Prison Conditions Litigation". Law & Society Review. 44: 731–767 – via JSTOR. 
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  15. ^ Wagner, Peter. "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017". Prison Policy Initiative. 
  16. ^ "Trends in US Corrections" (PDF). The Sentencing Project. 
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  21. ^ Hager, Eli. "Everything You Think You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong". The Marshall Project. The Marshall Project. 
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  23. ^ Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete?. 
  24. ^ McKim, Allison. Addicted to Rehab: Race, Gender, and Drugs in the Era of Mass Incarceration. 
  25. ^ Hudak, John (2016). Prosecuting the War On Drugs. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. pp. 59–72. 
  26. ^ Baum, Dan (April 2016). "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs". Harper's. 
  27. ^ "United States - Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs". Retrieved 2017-04-24. 
  28. ^ Tibbs, Donald F. (Fall 2015). "HIP HOP AND THE NEW JIM CROW: RAP MUSIC'S INSIGHT ON MASS INCARCERATION". University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class. 
  29. ^ Butler, Bethonie (October 6, 2016). "Ava DuVernay's Netflix film '13th' reveals how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery". Washington Post. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  30. ^ Garza, Alicia (October 7, 2014). "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza". The Feminist Wire. Retrieved June 6, 2017. 
  31. ^ Sarah Biehl, The School-to-Prison Pipeline, 28 OHIO LAWYER, Jan.–Feb. 2014,
  34. ^ U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Office for Civil Rights, School Climate and Discipline,
  35. ^ Catherine Y. Kim, Policing School Discipline, 77 BROOK. L. REV. 861, 901–02 (2012); Moll & Simmons, supra note 22, at 7; Advancement Project, Clayton County, GA, [] (last visited Feb. 1, 2017).
  36. ^ Heitzeg, Nancy A. (2009). "Education Or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School To Prison Pipeline" (PDF). 
  37. ^ Koon, Danfeng Soto-Vigil. "Exclusionary School Discipline: An Issue Brief and the Review of Literature." The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy . University of California, Berkeley School of Law , n.d. Web. Apr. 2013.
  38. ^ O’Conner, R., Porowski, A., & Passa (2014). "Disproportionality in school discipline: An assessment of trends in Maryland, 2009–12" (PDF). 
  39. ^ Mallet, Christopher A. (2016). "The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Children and Adolescents" (PDF). 
  40. ^ a b Smith & Harper (2015). "Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and expulsion on Black students in southern states" (PDF). 
  41. ^ Feld, Barry C. (1999). "Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court". 
  42. ^ Edelman & Smith (1975). School Suspensions: Are they helping children?. Washington Research Project. 
  43. ^ a b c “Adverse Effects of US Jail and Prison Policies on the Health and Well-Being of Women of Color”, 92, no. 12 (December 1, 2002): pp. 1895-1899.
  44. ^ a b c d e Henriques, Zelma Weston, and Norma Manatu-Rupert. "Living on the outside: African American women before, during, and after imprisonment." The Prison Journal 81.1 (2001): 6-19.
  45. ^ Lord, Elaine. "A prison superintendent's perspective on women in prison." The Prison Journal 75.2 (1995): 257-269.
  46. ^ Owen, Barbara A. "In the Mix": Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison (SUNY Series in Women, Crime, and Criminology). N.p.: State U of New York Press, 1998. Print.
  47. ^ a b Dallaire, D. H. (2007), Incarcerated Mothers and Fathers: A Comparison of Risks for Children and Families. Family Relations, 56: 440–453. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00472.x
  48. ^ DeHart, Dana D. "Pathways to prison impact of victimization in the lives of incarcerated women." Violence Against Women 14.12 (2008): 1362-1381.
  49. ^ a b Cecil, Dawn K. "Looking beyond caged heat: Media images of women in prison." Feminist Criminology 2.4 (2007): 304-326.
  50. ^ Mary Kate, Frank. "Locked Away". Junior Scholastic. Retrieved April 25, 2017. 

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