The Birth of Mass Incarceration

“Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.” (Lyndon Johnson). For generations minorities have been discriminated against and denied fair opportunity. The issue of racial inequality in the United States has been an enduring topic in history since slavery.

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Black Americans are affected by racial biases every day. The present-day racial inequality within the justice system has peaked over the last 35 years. Most of the people being incarcerated are African Americans. The overrepresentation of African Americans in the prison system is a serious issue, which is not talked about in its entirety. They leave out how and why African Americans end up in prison. They end up there because the government has discovered many ways to lock up African Americans. Nonetheless, it’s very imperative to tackle the matter because it ultimately will have an eternal effect on African Americans as a whole. For more than seventy-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of African Americans were systematically forced to work against their will. The processes of forced labor took many forms over those eight decades- sharecropping, peonage, convict leasing, and chain gangs- the final result was a prison system that deprived thousands of African Americans of their human and civil rights.

The justice systems have done this by exploiting the “Reconstruction Amendments.” There are loopholes within these amendments and the government used them strategically to put millions African Americans back into servitude. Southern states realized they could once again take African Americans civil and human rights because of what the 13th amendment says. The 13th amendment states “that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.. Shall exist within the United States.” Consequently, because of this, came eras of racism that directly impacted millions of African Americans lives. During reconstruction southern states realized they could put African Americans back into servitude by sending them to prison so southern states created Black Codes. They were restrictive laws created to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as cheap labor. This law strictly went against the 14th Amendment, which states “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” These bogus laws went against all of the the 14th amendment put thousands of African Americans into prison, which ultimately led to pig laws. Pig laws were another set of unfair laws that penalized poor African Americans for crimes such as stealing a farm animal. Just like black codes innocent African Americans were being arrested for minor crimes. These laws made misdemeanors or trivial offenses seem far-more offensive and the consequences were harsh felonious like sentences and fines.

Which ultimately led to thousands of African Americans being incarcerated. Subsequently, when African Americans were picked up for minor crimes that were faced with fines and court fees that they were too poor to pay so local employers would pay their fines and fees for them. Those African Americans would be forced into indentured servitude to pay those local employers back this process was peonage. Soon States realized that they could lease out their convicts to local businessmen who would pay low rates for the prisoners to do labor for free, this was convict leasing. Since business men and states saw this as a chance to make a profit they targeted poor African Americans to arrest and put into the prison system so they could make a profit. In the early 1900s stories began to be publicized about the abuse and wretched treatment of the convict laborers. The corruption of the prison system began to turn public opinion against convict leasing because of this prisons and businessmen lost funding. There was a problem of the expense and housing for the convicts, that is when chain gangs developed as a solution to the problem. Chain gangs were groups of convicts forced to construct roads, dig ditches, or farm all while being chained together.

Chain gangs minimized the cost of guarding prisoners, but exposed prisoners to dangerous infections from the shackles around their ankles. Ultimately all of these laws and systems led to mass incarceration of African Americans because they were all targeted towards African Americans. One of the first early criminal behavior theories was Ernest Burgess’ concentric zone model. This model explained how different social groups are located in a metropolitan area. It is broken down into 5 different zones, central business district, transition zone, working class zone, white collar homes, and the commuter zone. The central business district and the transition zone is where most criminal activity occurs. These areas are where people live closer to each other which increases the chance for conflict between people.

African Americans are the predominant race in these two areas because they cannot afford to live in the outer more safer neighborhoods. Also there is a increased police presence in these areas because of the criminal activity that occurs there. The heavy police presence put the people who live in these areas in a box where they become so used to and comfortable with living in that they don’t ever try to leave and move to safer neighborhoods. Subsequently, African Americans are forced to live in these high crime rate neighborhoods. Because of this African Americans are more exposed to violence in their neighborhoods and because police patrol these areas more, more African Americans are arrested and incarcerated. Burgess theory ties in with the social learning theory. The social learning theory is a theory where people learn social behavior by what’s happening in their environment. This theory most effectively explains criminal behavior because the African Americans who live in the first two zones of Burgesses model, learn criminal behavior and tendencies at a very young age. They learn this because when there growing up its all they know because there exposed to it everyday growing up.

Unfortunately, African Americans grow up and commit the same crimes they saw as they were growing up. For example if a young black kid knows a friend or a family member that sells dope there going to want to start doing the same thing because it’s what they are accustomed to. This ultimately leads to mass incarceration because African Americans go into selling drugs and committing crimes because it’s all they know. This is how they make it by because they cannot afford to move out of the bad neighborhoods, and because of that it is a never ending cycle of black people being arrested. Me being an African American woman in America I believe that mass incarceration is directed towards black people and black people and families hurt the most from this. America’s prison system is just another way to put our race into slavery. We have this violent and aggressive attitude about us because it’s how we protect ourselves from White America.

We learn these attitudes in prison and when black people get out of prison they keep that same attitude. Socially the prison system really messes African Americans up. For example from Bobby’s testimony he was poor and didn’t have a job. Bobby tried going out searching for jobs and no one would hire him because he was a convict. So Bobby did what he had to do to make money just like any other black person would do, he went back to doing what he knew best, trapping. That is how the prison system sets up black people, they release them knowing they won’t be able to get a job in the real world and black people go back to the only way they know how they lock them right back up. Also the prison system breaks up families when a loved one is incarcerated. For example my uncle is in jail for possession charges. His son grew up without a father figure because of the prison system sentencing him for 10 years. Because of that his son grew up in the same life as his father had and he now is a drug dealer. The prison system seperated a father from his son and his son didn’t get the guidance or support he needed so he ended up living the same life. Next thing he knows he’s going to be in prison right along with his dad. This is a never ending cycle that needs to be broken, so I ask what will you do about it ?

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