Institutional Racism in Prisons

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In today’s society, prison systems are pre-made and constructed to warehouse people from undeveloped and lower economic communities. Individuals are sent to prison for prison labor and economic gain by the states. Mass incarceration has increased tremendously over the last four decades. It has destroyed families, black communities, and is a manifestation of structural racism, which I will be discussing later on. Incarceration dehumanizes poor individuals and people of color, making it harder for them to possibly find life after prison.

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A young individual who drops out of high school today, for instance, will eventually find himself at a disadvantage in everything he attempts to accomplish. With the odds already stacked against him due to a lack of education, he will be more susceptible to arrest. An arrest carries a huge, enduring stigma in American society that many people do not overlook – no matter how big or small the crime is or how much time the perpetrator serves. If the dropout is black, he sadly finds himself in a life-threatening situation that could define and limit him for the rest of his life. Let’s assume now that the dropout serves eight years in prison and is finally released. This is when prison rehabilitation comes into play.

Prison often acts as a revolving door, with prisoners who reoffend and then re-enter the system. One of the significant problems is that people get released from prison without any tools to help them survive, let alone succeed. This forces returning citizens to focus on matters of survival rather than thriving, resulting in reoffending behavior. Within a twenty-four to seventy-two-hour period when they return, people who are released realize they’ll need to get a job, find shelter, and procure food and necessities – all of which requires money, which they don’t have. Returning citizens exhibit high-risk behavior because they are overwhelmed by the changes in their everyday life. When you are under the control of someone else, you tend to forget how to take care of yourself and lift yourself up without assistance or even a short-term path to follow until you’re settled.

If prisons dedicated time and effort to rehabilitation, the chances of other inmates reoffending would be significantly reduced. But, we are not meant to survive because it’s a setup. People released for less than a month end up returning to prison, and the same pattern reoccurs each and every time. I believe that incarceration is racialized and gender-biased. If you take a look all the way back to 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime, thereby opening the door for mass civilization. It isn’t just racialized and gendered, but it also puts African Americans in the spotlight for mainstream critique.

In the 1800s, African Americans were perceived as threats, shifting to now being competitors in a taut labor market. If you compare the inside of a prison to slavery, the risks are high, and it’s a proven fact that incarceration transforms those who were formerly exploitable into labor that can be exploited for profit through work in prison industries. I also believe the use of incarceration could be considered a form of racial labor exploitation, akin to the slave plantation economy critical to our country’s development. What many may not realize is, prisoners are not provided benefits such as health care, unemployment insurance, and compensation insurance.

Prisoners are paid as little as 0.13 cents per hour. This is tantamount to slave labor in the 20th century. The most disturbing thing about it all is the sheer number of individuals incarcerated disproportionately affects people of color, in particular, black males and a small portion of Hispanics. African American men in their early 20s or 30s without a high-school diploma are more likely to end up behind bars than in a workforce. One out of every fifteen people born in the United States will go to prison. In 2017, the American criminal system incarcerated 2.3 million people, and the U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

According to Releaz in 2014, “No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens, not to mention there are 6,000,000 people on probation or parole”. What intrigues me most is the fact that many people are in prison for the wrong reasons or inappropriate time lengths. The cash bail system, originally designed to ensure people returned to court as their case progressed, has morphed into a for-profit system of wealth-based incarceration set up by the government. Poor people get released, and that’s what I believe is wrong.

It’s a violation of equal protection rights, creating a system where the less fortunate get detained, and wealthier people go free. It’s also a due process violation because it keeps innocent people in jail prior to trial without the procedures and findings necessary to justify that sort of deprivation of liberty. Courts continue to use this method, but unfortunately, until we get the people demanding it, we are unlikely to see any extraordinary changes. The system of cash bail is also racially discriminatory. Judges are more likely to charge black defendants bail and assign them higher bail amounts for the same charges compared to white defendants.

Black people are incarcerated at an egregious rate, and due to historical socio-economic disparities, blacks are still playing catch up in terms of wealth, household income, etc. What shocks me the most is the disparity in the sentencing of defendants. Drug dealers, thieves, or those charged with drug possession often get up to twenty plus years, while rapists, serial killers, and murderers occasionally get sentences as short as three months or years. A lot of times, I believe this has a lot to do with race and stereotypes. The issue is further exacerbated by these biases. If the drug dealer is black, the defendant often won’t have a trial, and the issue is shoved under the rug.

Consider when a black person commits murder; they’ll likely face a death trial or get thirty years, while a white man committing an identical crime receives as little as three months and is diagnosed with a mental illness. I don’t think it’s fair to differentiate between the two men when both committed the same crime. Some 2.3 million people have lost their freedom, family connections, jobs, and homes. Prison is supposed to be a place where people can reflect, reform, and prepare to do better upon release. However, many prisoners fall into a cycle of crime, often spurred by the pull of gang activities and illegal activities for financial aid.

Typically, prisoners emerge in a worse state than they were previously. Every five years, 76 percent of those who leave prison return, often in a worse state than before. As I stated earlier, those who do leave prison often rely on survival skills rather than a path to success. Many ex-convicts are not even given the chance to apply for jobs, let alone enter a rehabilitation program. This situation sheds light on how prisons impact the community, and similarly, American children living in poverty. Communities often bear the brunt of our failing prison system. Everyday, children lose a parent or more to incarceration, which can lead to a life of poverty and significant mental health issues as they lack proper guidance and care.

Parents are often forced to raise children without the support of a spouse due to our country’s troubling history of mass incarceration. This has influenced many high schools, forcing them to adopt a zero-tolerance policy. Children typically experience their first arrest during their early teenage years and then find themselves on a path of repeated incarceration. Most children lack guidance while growing up. Those living in poverty often find themselves lost without supervision. They frequently encounter domestic violence, abuse, secondhand smoke, substandard living conditions, inadequate clothing, shoes, and they suffer profoundly.

The absence of nurturing figures leads them towards criminal behavior. They usually fall back on survival traits leading to drug violations, theft, and other criminal activities. Regrettably, children often rely on the first thing that makes them feel safe, which is generally the streets. Now let’s discuss the people who profit from prison labor.

American prison systems operate like an actual self-contained economy using labor workers and receiving financial support and funding. This economy rests on an opaque, often unaccountable infrastructure with its private equity financial transactions. Companies invest heavily to maintain or expand the use of our criminal legal system. Thousands of privately-owned companies profit from prison labor, including brands like Whole Foods, McDonald’s, AT&T, Starbucks, Nintendo, BP, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Microscope, and American Airlines. It is surprising to learn that even the world’s most kid-friendly restaurant chain profits from prisoners by outsourcing prison labor.

McDonald’s, the world’s most successful fast food chain, makes purchases of items placed in a jail facility such as plastic cutlery, containers, and even uniforms. In an article by Ashley Hackett, she states, “A report released by the Corrections Accountability Project, this article exposes over 3000 corporations, including over 2500 privately traded companies that profit from the United States prison system.” She also mentions that “The article provides data outlining thousands of companies that contribute intentionally and unintentionally to the prison industrial complex.” Apparently, many of these companies were trying to hide the fact that they were engaging in the system because it might tarnish their reputation. Since people do not come together as often as they should or have a voice to challenge what happens in their communities, the United States has more inmates than China, which has a population five times greater than the United States. U.S statistics reveal that the U.S holds twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population but only five percent of the world’s population. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1977, the jail population grew to two million by the year 2000. In 1990, it was one million and since then the rate has increased to over four times the size it used to be.

The true problem causing the high crime rate is poverty. Children of all sorts experience poverty because they are born into it, and this causes problems in their stages of youth. Poverty in America comes from urban areas which affects low-class African Americans. I believe the more accepting we become of crime and the efforts made towards putting an end to it, the closer we can get to finding a solution.

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Institutional Racism in Prisons. (2022, Apr 12). Retrieved from