The Age of Mass Incarceration

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When we typically think of crime and punishment we view it as a “conveyor belt” of justice: Usually the guilty are found guilty and sentenced to either long or short imprisonment terms depending on the crime committed. For some criminals the belt continues to move in a constant cycle from time of arrest, appearance before a judge, trial, the start of their punishment and finally the end of imprisonment, assuming that some go on to probation or are simply set free.

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On the other hand, there are those criminals who experience an endless conveyor belt, for example, repeat offenders. And there are those who are serving life terms or on death row awaiting execution. For the most part we get the idea that there is some sort of cycle occurring, but what happens when the cycle gets caught in what seems like a never-ending loop in one area? The answer to that is simple, while the belt becomes delayed in the other sections, this particular bulk section creates a large bubble, certain to rupture. Our current criminal justice system is a good reflection of this bubble: the fact is that here in the United States we imprison more people than any other country in the world (Kann, 2018) and this has negative social, economic, and psychological implications for, not just those incarcerated and their families, but also for society as a whole. This paper seeks to analyze the root cause of mass incarceration, the negative implications of incarceration, and finally what can be done to solve the problem.

Rise of Mass Incarceration

The United States began seeing a large rise in its incarceration rates beginning in the 1970’s. According to Professor Pfaff at Fordham University School of Law, prior to the 1970’s the U.S. was experiencing decades of stable incarceration rates, however, the mid-1970’s experienced a large shift. The prison population numbers rose from an estimated 300,000 to 1.6 million inmates, and the incarceration rate shifted as well from an estimated 100 per 100,000 to over 500 per 100,000 (Pfaff, 2015).  During this time the U.S. was experiencing a rise in criminal activity, social/economic turmoil and shifting race relations (Western, 2014). However, the war on drugs seemed to take the forefront as the main cause of the rise in mass incarceration.

The War on Drugs

When looking at the rise of incarceration most analysts have placed a large amount of causation on the “war on drugs.” They posit that the large rise in people being incarcerated during the time was due to the rise in arrests, convictions, and incarceration, usually for long periods, even for the most miniscule drug offenses and offenders. This was part of federal, state and local agendas to counter the trafficking and use of drugs (Pfaff, 2015). This policy initiative was brought by the Nixon-era but heavily emphasized during the Reagan-era. Beginning in 1971, President Nixon made a declaration of war against drugs. He largely expanded drug control agencies, brought about policies such as mandatory sentencing and “no-knock warrants” (“A Brief History of the Drug War”, n.d.). When Reagan came into office in 1981 the war on drugs continued but on a larger scale, this is when the rate of incarcerations dramatically rose. The war on drugs was not a part of Reagans initial agenda, however when public concern grew with the introduction of crack-cocaine, the war on drugs took precedence for the Reagan administration. According to author Westhoff (2013), the easy access to crack-cocaine during that time resulted in the diminishing use of other drugs. In response, Reagan launched his war on drugs initiative. More notably, Reagans wife Nancy took the forefront and began her anti-drug campaign “Just Say No” (“A Brief History of the Drug War”, n.d.). This campaign got the ball rolling for the administrations zero tolerance approach: the DARE program, an anti-drug program, quickly became a nationwide initiative, anti-drug policies were implemented that impeded the growth of programs that sought to reduce the harms of drug use, for example, syringe access programs aiming to lessen the spreading of HIV/AIDS (“A Brief History of the Drug War”, n.d.). As the Reagan-era continued so did the large crackdown on drugs. By the late 1980’s both Congress and State Legislatures implemented policies to place a greater emphasis on the drug war. For example, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 (Sacco, 2014). These policies, amongst others, played a large and controlling role in the publics hatred towards drugs and large numbers of arrests and skyrocketing incarceration rates.

Negative Implications of Incarceration


When it comes to mass incarceration a fact that has plagued the statistics from the start is that there exists a racial disparity amongst those being incarcerated. Namely, African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of those being incarcerated. According to CNN writer Drew Kann (2018), African Americans make up 12% of the total US population, but they make up 33 percent of the federal and state prison population. In comparison, whites make up 64% of the American population and only 30% of federal and state prison population. Moreover, these statistics shed light on some negative implications of mass incarceration on the African American community. According to researcher Dorothy E. Roberts (2004), there are three theories that explain and analyze the negative social impacts of mass incarceration on the African American community: the damaging of social networks, fracturing social norms and the destruction of social citizenship, however, this section will focus on the two theories with the greatest implications: the damaging of social networks and the fracturing of social norms.

Damaging of social networks. When a large amount of people from the same community are being incarcerated it damages the social network. For example, if a large number of African Americans in an inner-city neighborhood are being incarcerated chances are somewhere amongst that there are friend groups experiencing one or multiple members being incarcerated for long periods of time thus taking away usual contact (Clear & Rose, 2004). Moreover, social networks are damaged by mass incarceration in these communities when sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, etc. are separated from other kin by these lengthy prison terms. When a family member is incarcerated it creates turbulence in the social and financial atmosphere of the family. Author Roberts (2004) cites that in a ethnographic study done in the District of Colombia, analyzing male incarceration, researchers discovered that when a family member is incarcerated the support family stands to lose an income source, if the incarcerated individual was the source of income, they lose out on help with raising children, and have to take on the expenses of caring and communicating with the incarcerated family member.

Fracturing social norms. Mass incarceration can result in the fracturing of social norms. Communities are built around certain social values and morals, this includes both inside and outside the home. However, what happens when in a particular inner-city neighborhood there begins a rise in the number of people being incarcerated? This leaves little to no room for organizations such as churches or other community efforts to instill positive values amongst the people; it results in a disorganization of the community. According to author Roberts (2004) “Disorganized communities cannot enforce social norms because it is too difficult to reach consensus on common values and on avenues for solving common problems.” Even though incarcerating large numbers of criminals in an area helps to keep the community safe, when the number rises to a disproportionate amount it hinders the possibility of creating social order within that community, thus, creating a countering effect.


Mass incarceration has the potential to have a negative impact on the economy. When felons finish out their sentences and are released back into society they are back out there on their own. They must now find a way to provide food and shelter for themselves, and for some felons they are returning back to the family unit and will need to find work to aid in supporting their families. Researchers Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf conducted a study of 5 million felons in the U.S. who are no longer incarcerated. Their study found that felons are unemployed at a rate more than 27%. These researchers posit that these freed felons wish to work, however, they face roadblocks to finding employers willing to hire them given their criminal past. The research found that minority women, both African American and Hispanic, have less of a chance at employment after being incarcerated (Couloute & Kopf, 2018). This negatively impacts not just the felon but also employers and taxpayers. It creates this cycle of releasing the felon back into the same poverty ridden environment that most likely bred their ill ways. When a felon is released into society and is able to find a job to make income and support him/herself and their family, the chances of a relapse back into the same habits is lessened. They will contribute to the economy rather than being an economic burden.


One of the greatest downfalls of mass incarceration is its psychological impact on those incarcerated and the family unit, specifically children.

Inmates. According to her publication in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal author Shivani Tomar (2013) cites that when incarcerated inmates face both psychological and emotional fears. They often feel as though they must play the role of a predator to avoid becoming victimized by their peers. Moreover, once incarcerated inmates must get accustomed to life behind bars away from family and friends: this alone is enough to incite major emotional distress on an inmate. He/she will most likely dread that they are missing out on important life events and that life for them has come to an end. Those incarcerated also must come to terms with their new environmental realities. They will often spend majority of their day inside a cell, being told when to eat, when to have leisure time, and suffering a loss of personal space. Consequently, the idea behind imprisoning those who do wrong was that it would take them away from society for a period of time, lock them up free of outside influence and activities to think about what they have done and rehabilitate them. However, many inmates end up feeling depressed, anger, stress and get involved in substance abuse, among many other psychological downward spirals.

Children. The psychological impacts of mass incarceration extend to the families of those incarcerated as well. Namely children often have the hardest time understanding and coping with the situation. According to his publication in the National Institute of Justice Journal, social science analyst Eric Martin (2017) states that ever since the war on drugs in the 1980’s the rate of children with mothers who are incarcerated has seen a 100 percent increase, and the rate of children with incarcerated fathers has seen an increase of more than 75 percent. Getting an accurate estimate of the number of children with incarcerated parents is not easy because estimations can vary. However, according to Martin (2017) there was a report that estimated that the number of children who have experienced having one parent incarcerated could possibly “range from 1.7 million to 2.7 million.” There have been mixed findings on the exact psychological impact of incarceration on children because effects can vary depending on the family dynamic, the age of the child, race, etc. Through one study researchers found that boys who had aggressive tendencies prior to their parent(s) incarceration were at a greater risk of experiencing heightened aggression (Martin, 2017). However, the study also found that some children experienced a decrease in aggression if they are now in an environment where a father struggling with substance abuse is now incarcerated. Antisocial behavior is a key psychological impact on children dealing with the incarceration of one or both parents. In a meta-analysis of 40 studies on children who have parents who are incarcerated the results showed that antisocial behaviors were the most consistent psychological occurrence in children, even more prevalent than mental illness and drug use (Martin, 2017). Lastly, another study affirmed that when children go through childhood dilemmas such as the incarceration of a parent or both parents the child is at higher risk of suffering from severe depression, substance abuse, STD’s and attempts at suicide (Martin, 2017).

Counter Measures

Although many of those incarcerated are doing time for their poor decisions and our lack of care for them in a system meant to punish and rid society of their negative behaviors might lead us to have no interest in finding other solutions, it is important to keep in mind that they are human and they might have not been brought up in an environment that bred positive characteristics or behaviors. Therefore, some effective measures, outlined by the ACLU, that can be taken to lessen the amount of people being incarcerated and leading to a large buildup of inmates include:

  1. Reserving the punishment of incarceration for only certain types of high level crimes, for example, murder and rape, as well as, in low level offenses, eliminating the punishment of incarceration for people suffering from drug addictions, those who are mentally ill, and first-time offenders. This tactic would lessen the amount of people being packed into prisons, as well as preventing the waste of money and space locking up people who do not pose a significant threat to society.
  2. Federal, state and local governments should allocate funds to finding other means of rehabilitating offenders, for example, programs that make sure people who need drug and alcohol treatment are getting help, as well as those in need of psychological help. By working with offenders outside of locking them up we can make sure that they are properly rehabilitated and lessen the chances of them becoming repeat offenders.
  3. An offender’s terms of release should not solely lie on numbers on a paper, their behavior while incarcerated should be monitored to see if they are ready to go back out into society and be a contributing member, rather than locking them up for years let their behaviors and actions speak for them while incarcerated. Lastly, our criminal justice system should always be under review, federal, state and local legislatures should always pay attention to what improvements can be made to make the system more functional and effective.


The issue of mass incarceration has been an ever-present one in the U.S. for many years now. Starting with the war on drugs expanding from Nixon’s administration to Reagan’s administration we have witnessed an unprecedented boom in the number of incarcerated individuals leading to a mass incarceration problem. The issue of mass incarceration has its impact socially on the offender, the family and society, economically, and psychologically. These are areas which stand to face major disruption if mass incarceration continues to be an occurrence. Ultimately, incarceration is not the only answer to crime and has been proven ineffective. Federal, State and local legislatures should find better ways to fight the bubble, for example, creating more social programs and resources for those at risk, eliminating the punishment of incarceration for low level offenses, determining inmates release dates based on behaviors rather than a set amount of years, and constantly paying attention and seeking ways to improve the criminal justice system.

Works Cited

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  3. Couloute, L., & Kopf, D. (2018, July). Out of Prison and Out of Work: Unemployment Among
  4. Formerly Incarcerated People. Retrieved from
  5. Kann, D. (2018, July 10). 5 Facts Behind America’s High Incarceration Rate. Retrieved from
  6. Martin, E. (2017). Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent
  7. National Institute of Justice,278. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from children.aspx#noteReference18.
  8. Pfaff, J. (2015). The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, and Limited
  9. Legislative Options. Retrieved from ship
  10. Roberts, D. E. (2004). The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities. Retrieved from
  11. Sacco, L. N. (2014, October 2). Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends. Retrieved from
  12. Tomar, S. (2013). The Psychological Effects of Incarceration on Inmates: Can we Promote Positive Emotion in Inmates. Delhi Psychiatry Journal,16(1), 67-68. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from
  13. Westhoff, L. B. (2013, August 18). Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs: A Policy Failure but a Political Success. Retrieved from Reagan’s War on Drugs-A Policy Failure but a Political Success.pdf?sequence=1
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The Age of Mass Incarceration. (2019, Jan 09). Retrieved from