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Mass Incarceration

With 5% of the world’s population, but more than 20% of the world’s prisoners, the United States is the global leader in incarceration. In fact, the prison population in the United States alone is greater than the combined prison population of all of Europe. In the last 40 years, the prison population in the United States has increased 500%, from roughly 200,000 to more than 2.2 million.

The mass incarceration of poorly educated black and Hispanic men has become a principal instrument of social policy in the United States in recent decades. The “War on Drugs” produced “mass incarceration”, the de facto national policy of locking up millions of low-level offenders. This began long before the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The mass imprisonment of people of color was not an “unintended consequence” of the 1994 crime bill.

Throughout US history, law enforcement has used drug laws to target specific communities of color: in the 1870s, anti-opium laws were used against Chinese immigrants; in the early 1900s African American men were targeted by anti-cocaine laws in the South; and in the 1910s and 1920s, the first marijuana laws were used against Mexican migrants in the Southwest. But the war on drugs as we know it today was initiated by President Nixon in 1971 as he declared drug use in America “public enemy number one.” This was followed by a shift in both federal and state laws increasing enforcement and punishment, and enacting mandatory minimum sentencing associated with the sale and use of drugs.

By 1910, the Mexican Revolution was boiling over, and many Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. to escape the conflict. This Mexican population had its own uses for cannabis, and they referred to it as "marihuana." Not only did they use it for medicinal purposes, but they smoked it recreationally – a new concept for white Americans.

Some White politicians jumped at the opportunity to label cannabis “marihuana” to give it a bad rep by making it sound more authentically Mexican at a time of extreme prejudice. During the 1920s, anti-marijuana campaigns included wild claims that marijuana turned users into killers and drug addicts. They were all fake, fabricated to get rid of Mexican immigrants.

In 1930, where a new division in the Treasury Department was established — the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — and Harry J. Anslinger was named director. According to legend, Anslinger claimed that “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. … the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” [Several other racist, inflammatory quotes are also attributed to America’s first Drug Czar, but no one can point to a definitive and reliable source for these claims.]

The war against marijuana intensified in 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act was passed. The future for marijuana is looking very bright. At this time, marijuana, heroin, and LSD were listed as "schedule 1" drugs (having the highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use).

Mass incarceration has profoundly shaped American life. In the early 1970s, there were approximately 300,000 people in prisons and jails. Today there are over 2.3 million men, women, and children incarcerated in America, with another eight million people on parole, probation, or under criminal justice supervision. The effects on communities of color — particularly African Americans and Latinos — are especially severe. While African Americans make up approximately thirteen percent of the national population, they are forty percent of those currently incarcerated. In America today, one out of every three black baby boys born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue, and black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

Mass incarceration helps to obscure stagnant wages for labor, and enormous profits for bosses and owners and a low-wage, captive workforce — quite literally — that answers our customer service calls, produces our furniture and clothing and, with their ancillary associates in policing and the courts, exists as fodder for TV cop dramas, sitcoms, movies and documentaries. All of that product makes a ton of money for the prison, media, and other industries, and, just as importantly, helps sharpen the cultural narratives which defines who is “good,” and who is “innocent” and who is “guilty” just by their mere presence. The largest investor in Corrections Corporation of America [CCA], the Vanguard Group Incorporated, is also a major investor in Time Warner and Viacom. While one industry sends Blacks to prison, the other reinforces their image as deserving of their imprisonment.

Slavery profoundly influenced all areas of American society and specifically how the myth of white racial superiority was developed to sustain and justify this practice. Because the Thirteenth Amendment could not address this underlying myth of racial difference, what followed its ratification was a series of practices through which racial bias and discrimination continued, including convict-leasing, whereby black Americans arrested for “crimes” like loitering were reenslaved as laborers on whiteowned farms and businesses throughout the South. Moreover, African Americans were violently subordinated in the post-slavery era through widespread racial terrorism, creating an environment in which there was the constant threat of violence in response to any perceived transgression of racialized social boundaries or the status quo.

This growth in the use of incarceration as a tactic to allegedly combat crime has many sources, but can be traced in the modern era primarily to the racially and economically discriminatory “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” and the increased sentencing measures that accompanied and followed from them.

As with racial profiling in policing, the disproportionate number of people of color affected by mass incarceration has significant repercussions. Being taken out of society means being taken away from one’s community, family, and job. People with felonies are discriminated against in a number of ways: they can be denied housing, federal assistance, jobs, and lose their voting rights. In many states, people with felonies are automatically denied their right to vote until and unless they complete a confusing process to restore their rights (except for those convicted of certain crimes, such as murder).

Race, poverty, policing, and mass incarceration are inextricably linked in the United States. Through disparately impactful policing practices, communities of color—especially low-income black communities in Nashville—are targets of undesired police attention in the form of disproportionate stops, searches, harassment, citations, and arrests. In turn, the over-policing of communities of color contributes to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

Mass Incarceration

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Page last modified: 07-10-2017 17:47:47 ZULU