The United States holds the highest rate of incarceration in the world, accounting for 25% of the incarcerated population, despite having only under 5% of the human population. (source 1). On top of this, the United States barely makes it in the top 50 crime index. So how exactly does the U.S get off having the highest incarceration rate? (Crime) The U.S uses incarceration as an abused platform to disenfranchise, criminalize, and physically remove people from society. The criminal justice system in the United States has one essential goal, to deliver justice to those who have committed crimes or suffered from, despite this, it is hardly a just system. Infact, it is rather inequitable and discriminatory towards specific groups. Minority groups are disproportionately marginalized through mass incarceration and have been since the implementation of the War On Drugs. This is because society uses Mass Incarceration as a form of segregation for people deemed degenerate by those with higher social class. Due to The United States’s deep rooted racial bias that stems from slavery, there are strong efforts to margionalize people of color. In response, movements such as Black Lives Matter actively fight equal rights for all people in the criminal justice system.
Mass incarceration alone, despite it’s racial and social standing biases, is a way to control members of society via removal. According to an article written by PRIF, Begoña Aretxaga, states that “It can discipline its citizens and can delegitimize marginalized social groups that might have an interest in changing power relations by criminalizing them” The article goes further to say that by convincing society this is of their social interest, and that these “criminals” have done them wrong in some way, they are able to proceed without disruption. That is, until people begin to realize the inequity in the situation. In a journal by Laura Appleman, a professor of criminal law, she writes that “our discussion of mass incarceration often neglects a central history” the “wholesale institutionalization of the disabled… mass detention, motivated by a continuing… application of eugenics and persistent class-based discrimination” which leads to the idea that incarceration is beyond providing justice for criminals (Appleman). The use of the phrase “application of eugenics” implies an abstract and unique idea that the point of mass incarceration is to essentially remove all criminals from the society entirely so that we can artificially remove crime out of society, which is impossible to achieve. Implying the theory that a criminal mindset is heriditary more so just implies that all criminals have something wrong with their genetics, which isn’t the case. All people make mistakes, infact in the U.S it appears that they make less mistakes than in other countires, yet our incarceration rate is the highest internationally. She further discusses the ideas of Cesare Lombroso who “argued that the criminal mind was inherited, and could thus be identified by physical features and defects” and that his “theory of the “hereditary criminal” gave eugenicists a scientific basis for attacking and controlling crime and criminals, primarily through eliminating the criminal class’s ability to procreate”. This abstract view gives evidence to the idea that the goal of imprisonment is not and has never been to rehabilitate offenders, but rather marginalize them from society, disenfranchise them, and tries to create an artificially selected society. By incarcerating people for life, the criminal justice system is removing them entirely from society and segregating them, leaving them powerless. Through the eyes of Lombroso, long prison sentencing and harsh laws would create a short spike in the amount of incarceration, but then drop as the “criminal mind” is no longer something inheritable. Rather than creating a crime free society with a consistent low number of imprisoned people, however, all this has led to is mass incarceration. According to statistics by the sentencing project organization, the amount of incarcerated people began to rise quickly starting in the 1970’s, after the start of the War on Drugs, and has been on the rise since. The United States is imprisoning people with no goal of social rehabilitation, thus the amount of people imprisoned is stuck on the rise. This abstract view of mass incarceration proves that it is a method of social control that is used to marginalize people and, furthermore, is rarely implemented equally to all criminals. This method of control reflects the same methods of control that can be rooted back to the era of slavery in the United States.
Minority groups are unjustly targeted in the United States’ criminal justice system, primarily through mass incarceration. The Drug Policy organization released statistics which stated that “one in nine black children has an incarcerated parent” where only “one in 57 white children“ have an incarcerated parent . The rate at which people of color are incarcerated is significantly higher than that of white people. This is evidence for a direct goal to segregate minority groups from society, similar to methods used before the Civil Rights Movement. Essentially, mass incarceration has become a way for racial discrimination to exist today legally and unquestioned as it is coming from the Criminal Justice System. In a resource provided by Teaching Tolerance, it is written that “mass incarceration is a system of racialized social control that, like slavery and Jim Crow before it, operates to discriminate and create a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom”. By linking mass incarceration to Jim Crow Laws, the article shows the direct link between this control tactic and the same tactics used during reconstruction. Jim Crow Laws directly targeting people of color, disenfranchising them, taking away their rights, and ridding them of power. The resource furthermore states that “(they) are doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today” but rather “there is nothing special about them. They are merely human. They will continue to make mistakes and break the law for reasons that may or may not be justified” and thus “this system of mass incarceration will continue to function well. Generations of black men will continue to be lost—rounded up for crimes that go ignored on the other side of town and ushered into a permanent second-class status”. The United States’ deep rooted racism and bias against minority groups allows for this marginalization to continue. Overly harsh and extended prison sentencing is the easiest way for society to remove groups from society and ignore them, they are pushed to the side and become marginalized for life.
Organizations have been formed in the 20th century in order to draw attention and create resistance against this unjust treatment of minority groups in the criminal justice system. For example, the organization Vera of New Orleans was created shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was “a tipping point for the New Orleans criminal justice system”. With New Orleans initially having the highest detention rate in the nation, when Katrina hit they had a major problem. Suddenly, they had to worry about those whom they had marginalized. Starting then, the organization has been working to and has successfully lowered the amount of jailed people by 70%. According to their research in New Orleans, black men and women are over 50% more likely to be arrested than white men and women. Not only is the organization working to end over incarceration, but they are also working to focus on the rehabilitation side of prison. Rather than marginalizing groups and setting them up for failure, the organization is working to (end) the widespread use of solitary confinement, (protect) people from sexual assault, and (bring) college back into prison”, ultimately working to provide a chance for redemption. This organization is working to do more than simply reduce the rate of incarcerated citizens, but help those who are receiving justice for their actions move forward and eventually leave the system. There are several other important and successful organizations who work to fight and put an end to over incarceration, but some voices still go unrecognized.
People often assume that all people fighting against mass incarceration belong to an organization such as Black Lives Matter, Vera, or The Black Panther Party, but often it is individuals alone make strong impacts. Michelle Jones exemplifies this in a different form of resistance, she worked hard for herself and made herself an example of what is possible for incarcerated people to do. Jones was imprisoned after serving 20 years for the murder of 4 year old son after “she had a psychological breakdown after years of abandonment and domestic violence, and inflicted similar treatment on her own son, Brandon Sims”, while her crime is in no way justified and should not be overlooked, she was able to rebuild herself during and after her sentence. After her initial sentence in “1996, Ms. Jones worked for five years in the law library at Indiana Women’s Prison, and got certified as a paralegal” she then “received a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University in 2004, and audited graduate-level classes at Indiana University” and was released early on good behavior and educational development in order to earn her PHD. Staff members of Harvard’s history and American studies departments entered an application for her after noting her hard and well done work, it was only after she was accepted that they learned of her incarceration. After finding out that she was incarcerated, they immediately rejected her application, despite her qualifications. Jones is currently studying at NYU, and doesn’t have to work very hard to prove herself to her parole officers. Jones is far from perfect, and it is understandable that Harvard did not want to accept her, however she is proof that rehabilitation is possible. Those who are incarcerated do not all deserve to be there for life, they do not all deserve to be pushed aside forever.
Thus, through the implementation of the War On Drugs and Mass Incarceration, our society segregates minority groups and marginalizes them from society. Mass incarceration is a control tactic used by the criminal justice system in order to marginalize people they deem unfit for society, typically minority groups. This is caused by deep rooted racism and is trying to be changed by resistance groups such as Vera, Black Lives Matter, and The Black Panther Party. People like Michelle Jones prove that rehabilitation is possible and furthermore prove that mass incarceration is something worth putting an end to.
- Aclu. “Mass Incarceration.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union,www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration/mass-incarceration-animated-series.
- Genovese, Holly. “Perspective | The Activists Fighting Mass Incarceration? They’re Not Who You Think.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/10/20/the-activists-fighting-mass-incarceration-theyre-not-who-you-think/.
- Sinha, Klara. “Land of the Free and Incarcerated: Mass Incarceration of People of Color in the US.” PRIF BLOG, 18 Dec. 2018, blog.prif.org/2019/01/07/land-of-the-free-and-incarcerated-mass-incarceration-of-pe ple-of-color-in-the-us/.
- “Vera Institute.” Vera, 12 Mar. 2020, www.vera.org/centers/new-orleans/learn-more.
- “Parallels Between Mass Incarceration and Jim Crow.” Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources/tolerance-lessons/parallels-between-mass-incarceration-and-jim-crow.
- Lewis, Nathaniel. “Mass Incarceration: New Jim Crow, Class War, or Both?” People’s Policy Project, 30 Jan. 2018, www.peoplespolicyproject.org/2018/01/30/mass-incarceration-new-jim-crow-class-war-or-both/.
- Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, 19 Mar. 2019, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.
- Robertson, Campbell. “Crime Is Down, Yet U.S. Incarceration Rates Are Still Among the Highest in the World.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/us-mass-incarceration-rate.html.
- Gotsch, Kara. “Families and Mass Incarceration.” The Sentencing Project, 24 Apr. 2018, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/6148/.
- Beckett, Katherine. “Mass Incarceration and Its Discontents – Katherine Beckett, 2018.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0094306117744801.
- Appleman, Laura I. “Duke Law Journal.” Deviancy, Dependency, and Disability: The Forgotten History of Eugenics and Mass Incarceration | Duke Law Journal, Dec. 2018,dlj.law.duke.edu/article/deviancy-dependency-and-disability-appleman-vol68-iss3/.
- “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race (English/Spanish).” Drug Policy Alliance, www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish.
- “Crime.” Cost of Living, www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings_by_country.jsp.