The Jim Crow Era and the Roots of Mass Incarceration

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As time marched on, “black codes” had been replaced and renewed with a long line of actions that furthered and justified the unjust treatment of black people. The Jim Crow era was still alive and well. The slave had been labeled a Negro, now they were colored, and on the verge of becoming African Americans.

African Americans were prohibited from receiving a proper education, job opportunities, and were denied their primary human rights. Restrooms, hotels, churches, schools, orphanages, and funeral homes were all segregated.

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Jim Crow had even prohibited blacks and whites from playing chess together.

During this time frame, tens of thousands of black people were being imprisoned due to the increase in aggressive enforcement. Small and illogical crimes such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were enforced and treated as though they were crimes of the highest stature. They were arrested capriciously and then hit with unpayable court fees and fines. This re-opened the market for convict leasing.

Those unable to pay off their debts were sold and forced to work in lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and multiple private leasing companies. As the Civil Rights Movement began to spark like wildfire, Jim Crow’s reign slowly began to come to an end. Schools and restaurants had begun to desegregate and African Americans had now earned the right to vote. Blacks were still continuously terrorized, but now it was officially illegal to do so.

Just like the systems before it, Jim Crow was replaced with the War on Drugs, issued by the Regan Era. This, Alexander explains, was the main drive and primary fuel towards the Mass incarceration movement. White color America’s economy was collapsing, and they needed someone to blame. Introduced first by Richard Nixon, the War on Drugs specifically targeted African Americans. They were sentenced to multiple years in prison for petty drug crimes. African Americans were, once again, reduced to “welfare queens,” and “predators.”

This is where Alexander and Pfaff differ the most. Pfaff does agree that Reagans “war on drugs” did incarcerate a tremendous amount of people of color. He states that the state prison population increased from 6.5 percent to 22 percent, ranging from the 1980’s to the 1990’s. The people serving time for drug crimes rose from 20,000 to 150,000, during the same time frame. However, he disagrees that this was the sole reason for the population boom in mass incarceration. John F. Pfaff uses Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform at a tactical under cutter that strictly focuses on statistics and numbers.

Pfaff begins his book with an immediate debunking of the infamous “war on drugs”. He, in fact, says that the “war on drugs” was neither Nixon’s nor Reagan’s but Robert M. Morgenthau and Charles J. Hynes’s war on drugs. Morgenthau was the Manhattan DA from 1965 to 2009 and Hynes was the Brooklyn DA from 1989 to 2013.  Their war was not necessarily specific and its target was not originally drugs, to begin with. Before the rise of prison populations, the Harrison Act of 1914 criminalized heroin and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, did the same for marijuana.

He states that prison populations were already on the rise, years before the Reagan era. His drug legislations were the toughest in the nation, up until 2009. Nonetheless, prosecutors were not using them as often until drug admissions and importations began to soar. He states that there are more people in prison for nonviolent crimes than violent drug related ones. He goes on to quote President Obama in his publicized NAACP speech. He said “over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”

He does not attribute the cause of mass incarceration to prohibition, drug crimes, violence, or even drug wars. He instead classifies these as secondary causes. There were anywhere between 50 to 3,300 wars on drugs. They were all fought with varying degrees of intensity, at different points in time, different jurisdictions, and within several different ways, says Pfaff. He blames mass incarceration on prison reformers who have cut consents for some nonviolent crimes while increasing the punishments for others in order to avoid looking “soft on crime.”

Government officials who have a “tough-on-crime” mentality when making laws and regulations are directly responsible. He places some of the blame, of mass incarceration, on the government whose best interest is in securing its “monopoly on violence.” Many of those, who are currently serving time for drug chargers, resorted to that practice due to a lack of employment opportunities, he admits. People have also attributed an increase of violence to the increase in prison population.

Prohibition, nor the illegalization of drugs, does not cause violence. He instead suggests that when there are a lot of young men who are trapped in an area where there is little to no socio-economic opportunity, they will form gangs, commit crimes, and violence will follow. He classifies this as “lack of upward mobility.” Through charts, numbers, and graphs, Pfaff to disprove that the “war on drugs” was not the only contributor to the increased population on the prison system. He does the same when addressing the types of crimes of the people who actually occupy those same prisons.  Pfaff suggests that by legalizing drugs and decreasing prison reform, the prison population will too, decrease.

Pfaff’s writings, unlike Alexander’s, was redundant and often reneged on itself. Pfaff spends a tremendous amount of time critiquing Reagan’s “war on drugs” instead of revealing what he really thinks caused mass incarceration. He does not connect with the reader and instead speaks with a voice of judgement. He speaks as though everything the reader has ever learned about anything is absolutely wrong. The information he used was eye-opening, yet his overuse of numbers makes the reader disconnect and express disinterest.

This particular writing, by Pfaff, is rhetorical. In one tone he is saying the war on drugs is a contributor and within the next he is denying all involvement. Alexander truly captures the physiological development of legislative systems that caused mass incarceration. She does not single out one cause to the increase in prison population, similar to Pfaff. She instead embodies the evolution of slaver, to Jim Crow, the war on drugs, and attributes them all to the cause of the “new Jim Crow.” She tells relatable stories that the reader can relate to.

Her writing seems to be the better of the two. Seeing that she is an African American woman, she should be most knowledgeable, about the subject at hand. It is necessary to, nonetheless, read both the writings of Alexander and Pfaff to get both sides of the conclusion. Though the true cause of mass incarceration may never be singled out to once primary source, Alexander and Pfaff give essential insight its origins, physical and physiological effects, along with suggestive solutions towards solving its issues.

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The Jim Crow Era and the Roots of Mass Incarceration. (2019, Oct 26). Retrieved from