Updated November 19, 2020
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term prison is defined as the following: a state of confinement or captivity, or an institution for the confinement of those convicted of serious crimes. This definition evokes an expectation that prisons promote stability and security. Inevitably, the vast majority of individuals would prefer for criminals to remain isolated from society. It is undoubtedly disconcerting to envision a society in which the criminal justice system does not exist, seeing as it would be feasible to inflict harm upon others and operate with impunity. Due to its existence, it is possible for nefarious criminals such as kidnappers, domestic abusers, and serial murderers to be successfully detained. Additionally, swift and unsuspected ramifications await criminals who have yet to commit their initial offenses.
As a result of the depiction above, one may perceive prisons as being beneficial for society. However, an unsettling narrative accompanies these institutions: the malicious exploitation of formerly enslaved Africans, as well as the exacerbation of existing racial disparities. Perhaps the most effective method of comprehending this narrative is to examine the historical and contemporary context relevant to the operation of the prison-industrial complex in the United States. In this way, one will ascertain the methods in which the prison system has contributed to the instability of society.
Regardless of the potential belief that prisons are invaluable, they have often been utilized to criminalize the most vulnerable members of the United States. The following reality substantiates this assertion: the imprisonment of African Americans has been especially prevalent during the period of Reconstruction. According to an article titled “The Origins of Prison Slavery”, the 13th Amendment reinstituted slavery as a consequence of criminal misconduct.
Assuming that the formerly enslaved were to commit crimes, one may believe that it is unobjectionable to impose penalties upon them. Nonetheless, the process of incarcerating the formerly enslaved was by no means humane. In fact, the abundance of former slaves during the Reconstruction period enabled notable historical figures to capitalize upon the labor of prisoners. As mentioned in the article, 19th-century entrepreneurs such as Edmund Richardson endeavored to revitalize the cotton empire of the Civil War period. Seeing as he succeeded in generating nearly 12,000 bales of cotton on 50 plantations per year, Richardson was regarded as one of the most prominent cotton planters of his time. The article described the prison labor required for this production as being nearly akin to the slave labor of the pre-13th Amendment era. As such, a desire for morality did not serve as the impetus for the containment of prisoners. On the contrary, the apparent intention was to restore the atrocious institution of slavery.
As articulated, the leveraging of prison labor during the post-13th Amendment era has rendered formerly enslaved Africans in a state of servitude once again. However, there exists a phenomenon in modern society that is every bit as catastrophic: mass incarceration. According to the Oxford Bibliographies, this term is defined as the selective imprisonment of young African American males residing in impoverished neighborhoods. Upon initially researching the proportion of inmates in prison, one may perceive this definition as disingenuous. As revealed in a publication titled Prisoners in 2017, 475,900 of the 1,439,808 total sentenced prisoners were African American compared to 436,500 Caucasians. These figures translate to approximately 30% for Caucasians and 33% for African Americans. However, a critical detail has not been examined: the proportion of each demographic relative to the entire U.S. population. Displayed in an article authored by John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center are the exact figures calculated in the Prisoners in 2017 report. The data specify that African Americans constituted 12% of the United States population while comprising 33% of the prison population. The precise percentages for Caucasians include 64% of the United States population and 30% of the prison population. These statistics may indicate that the 2017 prison population percentages for Caucasians and African Americans are nearly identical. Regardless, the possibility that any crime rate would contribute to a prison population proportion that more than doubles a demographic’s percentage of the U.S. population is simply improbable. As a result of this discrepancy in representation, there is no objection to the fact that mass incarceration is indeed a reality.
The African American prison population is undeniably considerable. However, the extent to which imprisonment cripples the well-being of inmates often remains obscured. As detailed in a 2011 journal authored by Amy L. Katzen of Berkeley Law, there are specific conditions that contribute to the physical and mental illness of African American males. These conditions include the following: being raised in poverty, receiving an inadequate education, and reduced opportunities for employment. Albeit, these limitations are debilitating, the publication mentions incarceration as the one aspect most responsible for the infirmity of African American males. Additionally, the article describes noxious maladies such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C (HCV) as being prevalent in the United States prison population. Therefore, exposure to such ailments is nearly inevitable upon one’s containment. As emphasized in an additional article authored by Race and Ethnicity Policy members Danyelle Solomon and Connor Maxwell, the prison environment often deprives African American women of the necessary services for their sustainability. That is, there seldom exist resources for mental well-being, gynecological and obstetric care, or utilities for menstrual hygiene. The authors describe these limitations as catalysts for the increased distress of female inmates. Perhaps the period during which prisoners endure the greatest misfortune is upon their release. As Katzen addresses in her commentary, the formerly incarcerated are typically unable to receive vital resources such as health insurance, food stamps, and federal housing assistance. The denial of these necessities would invariably result in the generation of absolute poverty, which is often accompanied by increased criminal activity. Therefore, it is probable for released inmates to return to the insufferable prison environment.
As a result of mass incarceration, inmates are often unable to satisfy the necessities of their beloved offspring. Within a 2017 article titled “Mass incarceration of African Americans affects the racial achievement gap — report”, there exists a referenced Economic Policy Institute report. According to the publication, nearly 25% of African American children and 4% of Caucasian children have endured the incarceration of either one of their parents by the age of 14. Additionally, the report mentions that more than half of the prisoners served as the primary financial providers for their families. Seeing as it is virtually an impossibility for inmates to generate income or seek employment, the household income of these unfortunate families is likely to decrease considerably. Therefore, the children of incarcerated parents may often receive insufficient parental support. Such a deficiency, as indicated in the report, may account for the increased probability of delinquency, marijuana usage, and imprisonment of the inmates’ children. Due to the disparity in the figures presented above, it is apparent that parental incarceration is more prevalent for African American children than it is for their Caucasian counterparts.
An unpleasant consequence of imprisonment is the separation of children from their parents. Fortunately, however, this dilemma has not been entirely overlooked. Individuals such as Eddie Harris of Charlottesville have established programs such as REAL Dads in 2008. The objective of the program is to ameliorate the interactions between incarcerated fathers and their children. Harris is affiliated with additional organizations such as the City of Promise, which prioritizes the underprivileged children of Charlottesville. In addition to participating in community programs, it is customary for Harris to facilitate discussions with inmates in community jails. The duration of these discussions is nearly an hour or more, and there are typically six or seven male inmates that participate. Harris would often encourage the inmates to unveil their aspirations, describe the complications of fatherhood, and establish companionship amongst themselves. In this way, they would receive counseling that may alleviate their affliction. As Harris encountered more inmates over time, he developed an intriguing realization: none of the inmates possessed malevolent intentions as fathers. This observation indicates that the inherent desire to care for one’s offspring may be every bit as existent amongst convicts. Assuming that initiatives such as those of Harris were more pervasive, perhaps they may reveal that the incarcerated may not necessarily be as criminal as one may anticipate.
Prior statistics have confirmed that African Americans are the primary offenders of interest. However, there are specific details that the figures did not address: the crime for which they are convicted, and their socioeconomic status. As conveyed in an article titled “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race”, a significant proportion of African Americans are penalized for the violation of drug regulations. One’s initial impression may be that so long as an individual merely complies with state and federal crime legislation, perhaps the prison population may not be so enormous. However, such an expectation may prove infeasible for the economically deprived. As detailed in an article titled “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019”, African Americans possessed a reduced median annual income prior to their incarceration. The exact figures, as calculated utilizing the dollar value of 2014, were $17,625 for males and $12,735 for females. The data in the article additionally include the median annual income for non-incarcerated African Americans. The exact figures were $31,245 for males and $24,255 for females. Regardless of the difference in earnings between incarcerated and non-incarcerated African Americans, these incomes are minuscule in comparison to the $47,505 of non-incarcerated Caucasian men, for instance. Moreover, the figures for the incarcerated indicate that the imprisoned were initially in a state of destitution. Due to their obligation to provide for themselves, the impoverished may have developed a propensity to resort to illegal activity.
Despite the discrimination against African Americans in the criminal justice system, an individual may assert that the penalties imposed upon offenders are preventive. In other words, the severe sanctions of the prison system may reduce one’s incentive to commit crimes. Additionally, one may believe that poverty does not legitimize the violation of regulations. Regardless of these suggestions, the immutable reality is that the absence of resources will necessarily increase the rate of crime. Furthermore, the existence of racial inequities in prisons somewhat contradicts the perception that the intended objectives of these institutions are benevolent.
Amy L. Katzen, African American Men’s Health and Incarceration: Access to Care upon Reentry and Eliminating Invisible Punishments, 26 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 221 (2011). genderlawjustice.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/African-American-Mens-Health.pdf.
Bauer, Shane. “Why Do Inmates Fight Wildfires for Dollars a Day? The Origins of Prison Slavery in America.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 2 Oct. 2018, slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/origin-prison-slavery-shane-bauer-american-prison-excerpt.html.
Bronson, Jennifer, and Elizabeth Carson. “Prisoners in 2017.” Prisoners in 2017, 2019, www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf.
Gramlich, John. “The Gap between the Number of Blacks and Whites in Prison Is Shrinking.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 Apr. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/30/shrinking-gap-between-number-of-blacks-and-whites-in-prison/.
Maxwell, Connor, and Danyelle Solomon. “Mass Incarceration, Stress, and Black Infant Mortality.” Center for American Progress, 5 June 2018, www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/06/05/451647/mass-incarceration-stress-black-infant-mortality/.
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Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, 2019, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.
Seal, Dean. “Dozen: Harris Helps Men Be Better Fathers.” The Daily Progress, 31 Dec. 2015, www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/dozen-harris-helps-men-be-better-fathers/article_02d06ae4-b005-11e5-bb32-435fc85e33c7.html.
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Strauss, Valerie. “Mass Incarceration of African Americans Affects the Racial Achievement Gap – Report.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Mar. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/03/15/mass-incarceration-of-african-americans-affects-the-racial-achievement-gap-report/.
“The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race (English/Spanish).” Drug Policy Alliance, 25 Jan. 2018, www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish.