The Politics of Mass Incarceration

The US is currently home to the largest prison population in the world at a staggering 2.3 million incarcerated Americans.  Many believe that mass incarceration will ensure our safety through harsher methods; however, mass incarceration is especially detrimental to communities of color.

Mass Incarceration refers to the growth of the prison population that has increased by 500% within the past thirty years.  The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term that describes the overlapping interests found in the government and industry through which mechanisms such as surveillance, policing and imprisonment are seen as solutions to economic, social and political issues. The PIC greatly assists in the maintenance of authority of people who get their power through racial and economic privileges.  This prison complex is notorious for being heavily influenced by institutional racism.  These private prisons are substantially beneficial for the prisons, private prison lobbyists and affiliated corporations.

Institutional racism plays a significant role in the perception of nonwhite people.  Stereotypes make people of color more susceptible to mass incarceration. These stigmas distort the way police officers and other officials affiliated with the law perceive and misinterpret Black and brown people and mistreat them, including racial profiling. The dissimilar perceptions of Blacks and whites by police authorities perpetuate differences that advances  institutionalized racism in the US.

The impact that mass incarceration of Blacks in the US includes social, political and economic factors.  Exploitation of nonwhites by the Prison Industrial Complex in the late 20th century and early 21st century (1990s and 2000s-2010s) resulted increased profit of private prisons, a reinforcement of systemic oppression and institutional racism, the racialization of crime and social death.

Private prisons are a billion-dollar industry which exploit prisoners who are predominately Black and non-white Latinx for profit.. These prisons are run by private companies and have been on the rise since the mid-1980s, especially following the crack epidemic during the Reagan administration.  Over half of US states today depend on for-profit prisons im which approximately 90,000 inmates are held each year.

Racial profiling perpetuates white supremacy and the subordination of nonwhite people. For instance, oppressed nationalities living in marginalized communities have unfortunately been receptors of police misconduct and a heavy police presence in their neighborhoods.

Black men are arrested and imprisoned for non-violent offenses at a much higher rate than white men are; meanwhile, violent crimes are generally at an all-time low. Police officers wander about and arrest people in neighborhoods of color more so than white neighborhoods. Black people are disproportionately imprisoned for committing the same crimes that whites .

Policies and legal actions put into place as a result of the war on drugs included mandatory minimum prison sentences and an increase in the number of police in predominately Black communities. Blacks were being arrested and imprisoned for extended periods of time for crimes they may or may not have committed due to the increased presence of police in their neighborhoods. Stigmas of Blacks doing drugs more than whites also played a role in increased arrests of nonwhites. albeit the fact that studies have proven that Blacks and whites commit drug offenses at roughly equal levels.

Human Rights Watch’s “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the US states that in seven states, 90% of drug offenders sent to prison consist of solely African-Americans.  Sentences for Black and brown are frequently much harsher than sentences for white people for committing the same crime.

The racialization of crime and mass incarceration plays a key role in the systemic oppression of Black people.  The criminal justice system preserves legally enforced racism and segregation, seeing that African-Americans are policed, prosecuted, convicted and marginalized at a much higher rate than white people are.  The PIC backed by systems of institutional racism also consistently ensure that profits continue to be made from the forced labor of incarcerated people and using their convicted crimes to justify this neo-slavery as punishment. Dependence on the criminal justice system and neoliberal colorblindness has also resulted in coded language to describe racialized statistics of accused crime and punishment without needing to explicitly mention race; an instance of this would be the racialized term “welfare queens” coined by Reagan in reference to African-American women and anti-Black stereotypes about them.

Social death—when a certain group of people is out-casted from society—ensures a life filled with detriment for convicts—especially nonwhite convicts.  Although many formerly incarcerated people are able to integrate back into society, the burden they carry of having been a convict has material consequences and is virtually permanent for the rest of their lives.

An end to the war on drugs would significantly reduce the impact of mass incarceration.  Nonviolent drug offenders would be released from prisons, minimizing the prison population, and other measures could be taken to deal with  them and other nonviolent offenders.

More rehab centers can be built and strengthened for addicts that need them, as well as reform programs that assist addicts in overcoming their addictions and/or safely consuming their substances with medical supervision.  A process such as this is used in Portugal, where all drugs are decriminalized and the drug mortality rate is currently among the lowest in the world. Drug abusers must be seen as patients worthy of rehab and assistance as opposed to criminals that should be locked up.

Another potential solution to the devastating effects of mass incarceration is to allow former convicts to be able to vote, receive housing and jobs without being discriminated against because of their criminal record.. These solutions would also assist in removing the stigma of being a convict and would influence our society to be more empathetic of those that were previously incarcerated.

Valerie Reynoso is an artist, activist and journalist.

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