THE LOOPHOLE OF FREEDOM: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE US

Harrison Ungert, first year writing UNC Asheville student

In the United States, there is a high rate of incarceration: the highest in the entire world. This is a nation founded on the promise of freedom and opportunity for all, yet within this promise also lies the specific institution of incarceration that prevents this from becoming a reality for all Americans. The rate of incarceration in America is five times higher than it was just four decades ago, with 670 people per 100,000 currently in prison and jail (Maguire).  This rate most significantly includes, as well as affects, African Americans citizens. The population of Americans that are imprisoned has become so substantial that this has now been termed as a period of mass incarceration. The United States is leading the world in the highest number of incarcerated citizens per capita, and currently uses the wording of our constitution to continue this rate of institutionalized imprisonment.


Incarceration in the US is socially concentrated among African-Americans. African-American males with little or no schooling have a statistically higher chance of being imprisoned during their lifetime. The discrimination towards this race is seen throughout their lifetime, but statistically starting as soon as they are born.  At birth, an African-American male has a 28.5% chance of going to prison; whereas a white man at birth has a 4.4% chance of going to prison (Beck et al.).


The harmful effects of this high rate of incarceration for African Americans spreads farther than just the mainly adult population that is imprisoned; the lives of their families and specifically their children are also extremely burdened. There are 1.2 million, or one in nine, African-American children born to parents who are in prison (Paquette). Research shows that these children (especially males) have decreased school achievement, and higher rates of behavioral problems and depression than their peers. These male children often turn to criminal activity themselves, making incarceration an inherited trait (Rucker). This might also be a result of labeling. In sociology, Labeling Theory is the concept that “labeling” an individual affects their behavior and self-identity. For example, when someone raised in a neighborhood that has high crime or drug rates is labeled as deviant, they are more likely to believe they are deviant and will begin to engage in deviant behavior. Often, these labels are created by groups of people for other groups of people, for example, the wealthy label the poor “lazy,” the old label the young “entitled,” and some racial groups label other racial groups as more likely to engage in criminal behavior (Crossman).



Bruce Western, professor of sociology and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, holds that the inequality that is seen in today’s America is because of the high population of African-Americans in prisons and jails (Pettit et al.). These people become social outcasts because of their time in prison. As social outcasts, they have limited access to good jobs, credit, education, quality healthcare and other means of improving their lot in life, unlike everyone else in society (Pettit et al.). In fact, Western argues that it is not just individuals being put in jail, but whole social groups (Coates). “We’ve chosen the response of the deprivation of liberty. And we have chosen the response of the deprivation of liberty for a historically aggrieved group whose liberty in the United States was never firmly established to begin with” (Coates).

The 13th Amendment states that all men are created equal unless convicted of crime. Convicting high numbers of people who belong to a certain social group -- in this case, African-Americans -- helps to justify control exerted over that group. So, arresting people for petty, arbitrary laws and then forcing them into hard labor has been a tactic that has been used by those in positions of power in the US to control African-Americans and disenfranchise them (DuVernay). After slavery was abolished in the United States, the south had a large shift in its economy as a significant portion of its workforce was now considered free. Slavery was used since the creation of the south, and now that it was dismantled, they had to find other ways to recollect this form of labor. African Americans were soon targeted for seemingly minute crimes (such as loitering) and given harsh sentences that included manual labor. In this way the white south regained its workforce while remaining in the legal boundaries of the new amendment to the Constitution.


The incarceration of citizens for smaller and seemingly less harmful crimes has only increased in recent years. What started off as a way to regain power after the Civil War has now turned into a very literal war on the American people. This is now known as the War on Drugs. These policies started off in the Nixon era and only grew more intense and popular during the Reagan administration. People began to be jailed for nonviolent crimes and sentenced for possession of small amounts of drugs. Drug prosecution has become a leading factor in the mass incarceration crisis and only continues to grow each year. Out of 125,000 federal inmates, 97% have been sentenced for nonviolent crimes (Peláez). According to Jonathan Rothwell of Gallup, more people are admitted to prisons for drug crimes every year then either violent or property crimes. Along with these convictions also comes the sentencing for committing a drug crime.  Prison sentences are also longer than seems reasonable.  For example, Federal Law mandates a maximum sentence of 5 years without parole for possessing 5 grams of crack, or 3.5 ounces of heroin. For less than 2 ounces of crack, an offender can earn upwards of 10 years; compared to 5 years for 500 grams of cocaine - one hundred times the number of drugs for half the sentence (Peláez). Perhaps no coincidence, most cocaine users are white and rich, and most crack users are minorities and poor (Peláez).


What started off as a War on Drugs during the Nixon and Reagan eras soon turned into a War on Crime during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Drug convictions were still at an all time high, but criminal activity was also becoming more prominent to the public. The desire for increased strictness to battle crime outweighed the actual need for it. During his presidency, Bill Clinton signed into effect the 1994 “three strikes provision” to a crime bill. This stated that if an individual had two former convictions, including that of a drug crime, they would be subjected to a life sentence on their third conviction. This harsh sentencing drastically led to an overpopulation in the prison system and paved way for private prison industry. Although former President Bill Clinton has since regretted this bill, it cannot take away the effects it has had on the justice system.


Although there are major sentences for crimes associated with drugs, it is still important to conceptualize life for inmates after these convictions. Once released from prison, the reintegration into American life is often a hard and demeaning process. Research shows that up between 60 to 75 percent of offenders are jobless up to a year after their release (Petersilia; Travis). This is due to the fact that many employers are hesitant to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. It is also important to note that although every former inmate was indeed incarcerated just as the other was, race still plays a large role in who will possibly receive the job over the other. Former white inmates will receive half of the size of a penalty that former black inmates will receive on an employment application (Pager; Western). Reintegrating themselves back into society is even further inhibited due to the rights that were taken away from them, such as the idolized American right of voting. This often leads to offenders re-entering the prison system because they feel more comfortable there instead of this new place in society where they don’t seem to belong. Thus generating a continuous cycle of the prison system and its effects.


What makes matters worse is the rise of for-profit prisons, creating a financial incentive to confine whole social groups. There are businesses that exist which are given a steady supply of captive workers who may not choose to work for anyone else; who can legally be paid far below the minimum wage; whose insurance and benefits are paid for by someone else; and who can be punished with solitary confinement when they refuse to work (Peláez; Kim).  Although this sounds like a business that would be possible only in a distant, non-democratic country, it exists in the US prison system (Peláez; Kim).

The contracting of workforce inmates in private prisons creates the demand for more prisoners. Money is made by the prison administrators, and by the corporate stockholders who own shares of those prisons (Peláez). Which companies are contracting with the prisons to employ prisoners? The list includes IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Target, Revlon, Macy’s and many more well-known companies (Peláez).


Companies are laying off regular workers to hire labor from private prisons, where they can pay workers a tiny fraction of what they would have to normally pay (Peláez). This drastically increased the profits that companies earn, with the profits specifically coming from employing prison labor that tripled between 1980 and 1994 (Peláez). In state-run prisons, inmates usually work for minimum wage (an exception is Colorado, which allows pay as low as $2/hour); in privately run prisons, the inmates can earn as little as $0.25 per hour for a six-hour shift, or about $20 a month (Peláez). This amounts to little more than slavery, and when the fact that most of the inmates are black is considered, it begs the question, is this just a new, justified, form of human bondage (Kim)?


There is historical proof that this is true. After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, many freed slaves were charged for petty offenses -- often never proven -- and then forced to work in cotton fields, mines, or to build railroads (Peláez). This continued pre-war traditions, when slaves were hired out by owners to the State to work on municipal projects (Peláez).

“Profits are so good that now there is a new business: importing inmates with long sentences… After a law signed by Clinton in 1996 … caused overcrowding and violent, unsafe conditions in federal prisons, private prison corporations in Texas began to contract other states whose prisons were overcrowded, offering ‘rent-a-cell’ services” (Peláez) A strong profit motive ensures the preservation of the current system.


As the prison industry complex keeps growing, crime is decreasing (Badger). But there is no correlation between the first trend and the second trend (Davis). In fact, there are so many individuals locked up in the US that the threat of prison has diminished (Davis). The possibility of getting caught and facing prison time does not deter crime or make us safer. Evidence shows that a would-be-criminal doesn’t think about the possibility of prison or being caught (Bowling). Instead of discouraging crime, prisons tend to support criminal activity. The lack of proper rehabilitation, mental health care, counseling and job training make it harder for society to re-assimilate prisoners, and so high recidivism rates ensue (Badger).




Badger, Emily. “We Now Lock up so Many People That Prisons Have Lost Their Power to Fight Crime.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Feb. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/02/12/the-nations-decline-in-crime-owes-almost-nothing-to-mass-incarceration/?utm_term=.ebbab6fb6482.

Beck, Allen J. and Bonczar, Thomas P.  United States Congress, Office of Justice Programs. “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison.”Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mar. 1997. www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/Llgsfp.pdf . Accessed 5 Dec 2017.

Bowling, Julia. Four Misconceptions About Crime | Brennan Center for Justice, 10 Mar. 2015, www.brennancenter.org/blog/four-misconceptions-about-crime .

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Director. The Racism of Mass Incarceration, Visualized: an Interview With Bruce Western. The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, www.theatlantic.com/video/index/404890/prison-inherited-trait/.

Crossman, Ashley. “How Labeling Theory Can Help Us Understand Bias and Criminal Behavior.”ThoughtCo, 2 Mar. 2017, www.thoughtco.com/labeling-theory-3026627.

Davis, Kristina. “Study: Incarceration Not Behind Crime Drop.” Sandiegouniontribune.com, 24 Aug. 2016, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-crime-study-mass-incarceration-brennan-center-2015feb14-story.html .

DuVernay, Ava, director. 13th. Netflix, 2016.

Kim, E. Tammy. “A National Strike Against ‘Prison Slavery.’” The New Yorker, 3 Oct. 2016, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-national-strike-against-prison-slavery.

Maguire, Kathleen and Pastore, Ann L. Editors. Fact Sheet: Trends in U.S. Corrections. The Sentencing Project, 2017, Fact Sheet: Trends in U.S. Corrections, http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf.

Paquette, Danielle. “One in Nine Black Children Has Had a Parent in Prison.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Oct. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/10/27/one-in-nine-black-children-have-had-a-parent-in-prison/?utm_term=.d09e058d046c.

Peláez, Vicky. “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization, 28 Aug. 2016, www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289.

Pettit, Becky, and Western, Bruce. “Incarceration & Social Inequality.” Daedalus, 2010, pp. 8–19, www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus/10_summer_western.pdf .

Rucker, Johnson C. “Ever-Increasing Levels of Parental Incarceration and the Consequences for Children.” 2008, www.ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~ruckerj/RSFbkChapter_parentalincarc_child.pdf .