The Prison Industrial Complex and the New Jim Crow: Analytical Essay

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The Prison Industrial Complex is seen as the new Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws started as early as 1865, after the slaves were freed due to the thirteenth amendment, which freed about four million people from slavery. The laws around slaves, how, when, and where freed slaves could find work and for how much, was strict. These ‘codes’ throughout the South would appear as a legal way to take away African American's right to vote, take away their own control of how they lived and traveled. Ex-Confederate soldiers were the main people working as judges and police officers, because of this winning court cases was nearly impossible for African Americans. In jails, prisoners were treated as slaves, and African American offenders almost always received sentences that were longer than white offenders who have committed the same crime.

The work that they were expected to do was so physically demanding and exhausting and constant, that many inmates died even before their sentence was over due to the work. The Jim Crow Laws only continued to grow and expand leading to segregation. Not until the end of World War II did the civil rights really start to take off. Integration of the military was ordered in 1948 by President Harry Truman and educational segregation ended in 1954 as a resuly of the Supreme Court case Brown VS. Board of Education. Then not until 1964, did President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation and discrimination legally, which were previously institutionalized by Jim Crow laws. Minorities then got the right to vote due to the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and a legal effort to end discrimination when minorities tried to buy, rent, and sell homes was in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act. Unfortunately, even though laws were passed in an effort to end the discrimination that did not mean that it stopped rascism from happening in the United States.

Michelle Alexander, author of ​The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, believes that mass incarceration has a similar political origin than the Jim Crow laws. She says “Both caste systems were born, in part, due to a desire among white elites to exploit the resentments, vulnerabilities, and racial biases of poor and working-class whites for political or economic gain,” (Alexander, 2011). Caste systems are generally associated with an ascribed or predetermined status. S0, for people of color that predetermined status leads to segregation. Alexander also notes that a way white elite’s were trying to deter the hate towards themselves and put it on African Americans instead was by proposing segregation laws. Mass incarceration is another product of a similar type of political move like that one. Alexander (2011) believes that the “most obvious” similarity between current mass incarceration and the old Jim Crow laws, is the legal discrimination. To this day, it’s no secret that there is still racism and discrimination again people of color, despite there being laws that are supposed to be preventing it. Alexander argues that African Americans are relegated to a lower level of the caste system, due to many of them being convicted of a felony before they turn twenty-one, partly due to racism in the criminal justice system and the war on drugs.

About ninety percent of those who are arrested and sentenced to prison over drug offenses are people of color, but mostly latino, and black. The war on drugs have left people and families, both innocent and not, in devastating conditions, such as homelessness, putting children in foster care, and taking away government aide from those in need. According to D’angelo and Douglas 2014, “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 percent to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison,” (2014. Pg 243). They also note that in the mid 1980’s when the war on drugs really began, the number of African Americans who were put into jail became higher than ever before, and by 2000 the number was “more than twenty-six times” (D’Angelo and Douglas 2014. Pg 243) the number in the mid 80’s. It has been proven that white people make up the majority of illegal drug users and a majority of drug dealers. However, for some reason, blacks and latinos about three-fourths of those who get arrested and sentenced for different drug offenses, even though the majority actually committing these felonies are people who are white. It is argued that crime rates are the reason that there is a disproportionate number that there is between those who are really committing the crimes and those who are serving time for them. However, crime rates don’t explain why there is such a big racial difference that we’re faced with in the system.

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According to D’Angelo and Douglas 2014, “the Supreme Court has actually granted the police license to discriminate,” (2014. Pg 245). The departments know the backlash they would receive if this information was to be publicized for the general public, so they decided not to, and keep it their own secret. It’s very easy to defend the police and say that racial bias isn’t what they do, and that it isn’t a problem within the police. There can be a handful of other reasons that can been used instead to defend an officers choice to stop and search someone.

While there are many who agree with Alexander and also believe that mass incrimination is a new form of the Jim Crow laws, there are also people, like James Forman Jr., who do not believe this. Forman 2012 argues that, “the analogy generates an incomplete account of mass incarceration- one in which most prisoners are drug offenders, violent crime and its victims merit only passing mention, and white prisoners are largely invisible” (Forman, 2012). Forman believes that although Alexander makes good and important points in her writing, he also believes that she is leaving out a large portion of factors about people who are incarcerated. He doesn’t think that it should be forgotten about the amount of latinos and the amount of white people in prisons, and the different crimes that make someone have a threat to be sentenced to prison time. He believes that the way these writers are comparing the issue of mass incarceration and the old Jim Crow laws just asserts a sense of people have forgotten about history. He is worried that through these comparisons people will forget about the “important aspects of what made the Old Jim Crow Laws so horrible,” (Forman, 2012).

Another large topic of the population in prison is women. More specifically women of color. According to Angela Y. Davis and Cassandra Shaylor 2001, “although women comprise a relatively small percentage of the entire prison population, they constitute, nevertheless, the fastest-growing segment of prisoners,” (Davis, Shaylor 2001). They note that the population of women who are being imprisoned most rapidly are women that are latina, black, Asian American, and indigenous. A big concern that people have is the violence women face in prisons. Davis and Shaylor explains, “women’s prisons are located on a continuum of violence that extends from the officials practices of the state to the spaces of intimate relationships,” (Davis, Shaylor 2001). They also go on to argue how this violence occurs in private prisons as well as public ones, and it is heavily kept from the view of the general public, which makes it a topic that does not get discussed. Davis and Shaylor also go to note that, “prisons are places within which violence occurs on a routine and constant basis; the functioning of the prison depends on it’” (Davis, Shaylor 2001). They believe that this violence heavily affects prisoners mental well-being just as much as their physical one, and believe that it is the biggest reason for mental illness among “poor people”.

There are a multitude of theories about prisons and the criminal justice system. It is no secret that racism is a very large and important factor when discussing these issues because people of color seem to get racially profiled, thrown into the prison system, and all around just mistreated by authorities way more than white people. There is also a debate about whether those who are being sent to jail due to the war on drugs that started in the mid-eighties, are actually victims of the ‘new Jim Crow laws.’ There are is a disproportionate number of those who are latino, black, and native american vs how many are white in prisons. It is often disputed because others believe that people who believe in the new Jim Crow laws, aren’t taking all of the statistics and crimes into account. Now, women in prison is something that is often overlooked, more importantly how there is also a big disproportionate number of how many women of color VS how many white women are sent to prisons. A big concern is that there is more violence that happens to women, specifically women of color, while in prisons and it is not publicized because prisons make sure to keep it a secret from the public.

Reference Page

  1. Alexander, M., & West, Cornel. (2012). ​The New Jim Crow​ (ERACCE recommended resource). New York: New Press, The.
  2. D’Angelo, Raymond, Douglas, Herbert. 2014. ​Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Race and Ethnicity. New York City: McGraw-Hill Education.
  3. Davis, A., & Shaylor, C. (2001). Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex: California and Beyond. ​Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism,​ ​2​(1), 1-25.
  4. Editors, 2018. ‘Jim Crow Laws’. Retrieved October 11, 2019. (​​).
  5. Forman Jr, J. (2012). ​Racial critiques of mass incarceration: Beyond the new Jim Crow​. ​NYUL Rev.​, ​87​, 21.
  6. Moore, R. (2017). ​The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.
  7. Macat Library.
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The Prison Industrial Complex and the New Jim Crow: Analytical Essay. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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