Mass Incarceration: A New Form of Slavery

  • Mass Incarceration, the concentration of imprisonment amid African American men, is said to be a product of severer drug laws and more inflexible guidelines enacted in the 1970s during America’s “War on Drugs” (Whyy, 2013). The term can also be attributed to the United States’ outrageously high incarceration rate in contrast to other countries around the globe. Either way, it has revealed itself as an element that negatively impacts our country socially and economically. The effects are felt beyond the just over 2 million Americans who are incarcerated – roughly half of them for non-violent crimes - but are magnified throughout the families and communities. Mass Incarceration deters, incapacitates and weakens poor families (Wildeman, 2012).

    Felons are denied participation in our electoral democracy, which means they lose their right to vote, their right to be free of discrimination in employment, and housing, as well as access to education and public benefits (Alexander, 2012). These are the same rights and liberties that were denied people of color during the Slavery and Jim Crow eras. Could this be just another method for crippling the power of minorities in our democracy? Many argue that cultural shifts, political realignments, changes in job outlooks for low-skilled men and legal changes have energized the dramatic surge and blatant inequality in rates of imprisonment over the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Wildeman, 2012). However, there is evidence that suggests that the concentration of African American men in prison is no coincidence. As stated by Michelle Alexander, a highly-acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

    There are generations of black men whose rights have been stripped from them for one reason or another that is associated with racial inequality and disadvantage. Jarvious Cotton, a young black man labeled a felon in the United States has been denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises – the right to vote. His great-great-grandfather was a slave who was not allowed to vote. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for trying to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious faces a more modern obstacle. Although he has served his time and is on parole, he is permanently ineligible to vote in the United States. He is not allowed to participate in matters that affect his own life and well-being (Alexander, 2012). This is the case with millions of black men in the U.S.

    African American families have become less durable over the past 30 years, simply because the head of the household, who usually provides for and protects the family, is missing in many cases. So, this has a great effect on not only the men themselves, but on their families. Women are required to take on dual roles, and children unconsciously reinvent the meaning of being a black man. This perpetuates over time and creates an entirely new culture in which the African American male is no longer considered to be a necessity, although he still is very much so needed to successfully carry on and raise valuable citizens.

    An African American family with a missing father does not operate to its fullest potential. Without a stern provider present, this family loses enormous buying power and is much more likely to struggle in today’s economy. With the majority of black men in major urban areas being under correctional control, it shouldn’t be surprising as to why many black families are struggling to get ahead. Even when their time has been served, felons are not properly reintroduced into society as citizens. Businesses will not hire them, and many schools will not accept them. How are they expected to support and raise families with no income or access to education? By enforcing this rule, the criminal justice system suggests that because a man commits any crime, he should not be allowed to provide for himself and his family. For me and many others who have studied this subject, this violates an unalienable right – the right to pursue happiness. I can agree with numerous researchers that the government should not have the power to take this right away.

    There is even more concern about the use of the law in these situations. About half of over 2 million incarcerated are serving time for non-violent drug offenses. They are forced to serve 20, 30 and even 40 years for crimes that involve no level of violence. I find it very disturbing that incarceration rates have increased 500% in the last 40 years, but violent crime has not decreased at all. This raises a very simple question about Mass Incarceration – has it really worked? The answer is no.

    Research suggests that the benefits of imprisonment continues to diminish and has been for the last several years. Furthermore, experts suggest that it is a generator of social inequality because it is unequally distributed and has negative effects on prisoners and others within their society (Wildeman, 2012). Years of research has displayed that people of color are often sentenced more harshly. Black and Latino defendants are disadvantaged compared to whites with respect to legal process related issues such as the “trial penalty,” sentence reductions for substantial assistance, pretrial detention, and type of attorney. Also, Black defendants convicted of inflicting harm on white victims suffer harsher penalties than blacks who commit crimes against other blacks or white defendants who harm whites. Lastly, Black and Latino defendants tend to be sentenced more severely than comparably situated white defendants for less serious crimes, specifically drug and property crimes (The Sentencing Project, 2005).

    William J. Stuntz, a former Harvard Law Professor, argues in his published work “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice”, that the context of the U.S. Constitution is a great underlying cause for such inequality. He suggests that the infamous document we live by in this country places too much emphasis on process and procedure rather than on principles (Gopnik, 2012). He also feels that accused criminals are protected against procedural errors, but are not protected against obvious violations of simple justice.

    Bryan Stevenson, a Human Rights Advocate and New York University Law Professor expresses that no person is defined solely by the worse thing they’ve ever done. Why are criminals punished in a manner that suggests they can’t and won’t change? Why is there no regard to principles and circumstance in modern law? Why isn’t there more funding to assist reintroducing felons to society, so they are no longer forced to resort to crime to take care of their families? It is simply because Mass Incarceration is the rebirth of a caste-like system.

    The idea of unfairly imprisoning a group of people, depriving them of their rights as citizens in a democracy, just to keep them at a disadvantage is a very blatant violation of basic human rights and principles. It goes against everything our nation stands for – freedom, liberty and justice. In the U.S., incarceration rates have increased by 500% over the last 40 years, yet, the level of violent crime in this country has generally stayed the same. This deems Mass Incarceration an ineffective method for the punishment of criminals, the promotion of safer communities and the rehabilitation of offenders. Lastly, our society and economy is weakened when millions of citizens are stripped of their rights and millions more are immediately affected. We must realize that we, as a nation, are affected by any inequalities within our judicial system and other systems we have established in our country.


    Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press.

    Gopnik, A. (2012, Jan 30). The Caging of America. Retrieved from

    Hedges, C. (2012, Dec). Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us as a Society. Retrieved from

    Justice Reinvestment Initiative. (2012). Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment. Retrieved from

    The Sentencing Project. (2005, Jan). Racial Disparity in Sentencing: A Review of the Literature. Retrieved from

    Whyy. (2013, Feb 27). The History and Legacy of Mass Incarceration in the U.S.. Retrieved from

    Wildeman, C. (2012, Apr 24). Mass Incarceration. Retrieved from

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