What is Mass Incarceration?

The United States incarcerates more people, in both absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. Since 1970, the number of incarcerated people has increased sevenfold to 2.3 million in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.” -ACLU

What is Mass Incarceration?
The term mass incarceration refers to the United States’ history of locking up huge segments of the population while disproportionately targeting communities of color, immigrants, poor people, people with mental health and addiction issues, survivors of violence and LGBTQIA+ folks. 

For more information and statistics about mass incarceration, click here.

What is the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)? 
The term “Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)” refers to the overlapping interests of governmental and private industries that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. When we reference the PIC we are not speaking only of the literal prison building but to a wide web of individuals and companies that have a vested interest in the continuation of mass incarceration.

Mass Incarceration is a Direct Evolution of American Slavery 

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery except for as punishement for a crime. However, the free labor of black people was an indispensable resource for American businesspeople, landowners, and politicians, especially in the South, where “black codes” and Jim Crow Laws were instituted post-Civil-War in order to imprison black people for small and petty crimes and to keep them working in chains- in fields, by highways and railroads, and in factories for little or no wages1. Today the PIC uses that same “except” clause as a legal loophole and sledgehammer to continue to disempower marginalized people and profit off of their emprisonnement and labor.

The following video illustrates how chattel slavery turned into mass incarceration in the United States:

Prisons Don’t Work
The PIC is the central stronghold of our society’s addiction to punishment and shame, which is the root cause in the cycle of violence that we as humans perpetuate against one another. The very presence of police, arrests, jails, and prisons in our lives all tell us that if we do something “wrong” we are “bad” and for that we deserve to be removed from our communities and punished instead of being held accountable within the context of whatever harmful action we took. This threat of punishment starves us in all areas of our lives and prevents us from realizing our greatest desires.

Incarceration tears individuals away from their community and places them in inhumane and degrading circumstances. As prison abolitionist  Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it,  “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” Why, as society, do we would choose to model cruelty and vengeance?” In simpler terms, why do we hurt people to show that hurting people is wrong?

Prisons violate human rights and fail at rehabilitation. The average prisoner receives no or few educational opportunities, mental health services, or services that might help them secure housing, a job or other basic needs after their release. Instead, prison introduces a host of traumas to prisoners’ lives and brands them with the title of “criminal offender,” a sentence which does not disappear when (if) they re-enter the free world but instead makes in next to impossible for them to find employment or housing. With nowhere left to turn, many ex-prisoners find themselves in the same circumstances that led them into the jaws of the PIC in the first place. They unwillingly wind up back behind bars where the cycle continues2.

There is no substantial evidence to indicate that prisons deter crime or increase public safety. In fact, some studies have indicated that increased rates of incarceration lead to increased crime rates3.

Prisons are also incredibly expensive to maintain and are a huge drain not only on State and Federal resources and taxpayer dollars which could be used to empower and uplift marginalized people and their communities. Prisons also empty the wallets of family member and friends of those who are incarcerated and find themselves paying private companies for services that prisons themselves refuse to provide (telephone services, meals at commissary, etc.4)

If Not Prisons, Then What?
Prisons have operated for far too long as a faulty catch-all for social problems, not only failing to reduce harm and violence, but in fact perpetuating and exacerbating them. But if not prisons, then what?  It is indeed a feat of great creativity to imagine a world without prisons, but that is just what a long legacy of people have been and are doing. Practices such as Transformative Justice  and Restorative Justice recognize that real harm, violence, and trauma happen and deserve a meaningful and serious response, but that prisons and cops do not offer a sustainable solution. Instead Transformative/ Restorative practices take place within the context of the community where the harm occurred. The details of each process look unique, but central objectives focus on immediate and long-term safety, accountability, individual and collective liberation, and addressing the conditions under which harm occurred.

To learn more about Transformative Justice, check out the toolkits and guides listed here. 

1Does an Exception Clause in the 13th Amendment Still Permit Slavery. HISTORY.com. https://www.history.com/news/13th-amendment-slavery-loophole-jim-crow-prisons. October 2nd, 2018.

2How Does Mass Incarceration Affect Communities. Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. http://www.ccano.org/blog/how-mass-incarceration-affects-communities/. Publication date not available.

3The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer. Vera Institute for Justice. https://www.vera.org/downloads/publications/for-the-record-prison-paradox_02.pdf. July, 2017.

4The Hidden Cost of Incarceration. The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/12/17/the-hidden-cost-of-incarceration. December 17th, 2019.

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