The Topic of Mass Incarceration

The topic of mass incarceration is a sensitively debatable subject that is not discussed well enough, in America. Mass incarceration refers to an overabundance of Americans, mainly those of color, being under some type of correctional control. Correctional control involves prison, jail, probation, and parole. It also subjugates the irrational laws, policies, and practices that implores for the use of cruel punishment, instead of deterrence or rehabilitation. Victims of such policies are often disproportionally of the African diaspora and the Latino population. As history and statistics have shown, African American males are more likely to be giving longer sentences, than their white counterparts, even if the crimes and jurisdictions are similar. In comparison to other industrially developed and even some non-developed countries, the United States of America has one of the highest rates of incarceration. The prison and felon population is steadily on the rise. The coined term is addressed and approached in various amounts of ways. Authors Michelle Alexander and John F. Pfaff have a uniquely similar and different perspective on the issue, at hand.

Michelle Alexander, a well-educated, African American woman, and mother of three, opens up about the discrepancies of mass incarceration in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She begins, in her introduction, with two compelling experiences of two black men, in current America. First, she mentions Jarvious Cotton. He belongs to a long generation of African American men who have been continuously denied one of their seemingly basic and inalienable rights, the ability to vote.

His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather had all been denied the freedom to vote based on the color of their skin. His great-great-grandfather was not allowed to vote, because we has a slave and not classified as a living breathing human being.

Cotton’s great-grandfather was beaten to death by Klan’s men and his grandfather was prohibited from voting due to their terroristic intimidation tactics. Cotton’s father was bombarded with voting poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Then there was Javrious Cotton, who would never be able to vote because he is a felon. Felons undergo a social death and become slaves of the state. Their rights are revoked and are unable to maintain or find adequate employment thus causing them to fall back into a life of crime.  Her second example begins with the night of the Obama election. She expresses her enthusiasm of having the first male African American presidents and feels hope for the future of this country.

However, as she leaves the election party, her feelings of prosperity were quickly submersed as she saw an African American male, kneeled down in a nearby gutter, while in handcuffs. He was surrounded by police who were, as Alexander describes, “talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence.” More people began to pour out of the election party, noticed the young man, and then proceeded to turn a blind eye. The election of this country’s first black president meant absolutely nothing, to anyone, in that particular moment. These two instances are prime examples of how, even though hundreds of years have passed, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Though the world around us has changed, the racial systematic and socio-economic injustices still remain. Nevertheless, Cotton’s and the man in the gutter’s stories are only the tip of the iceberg.

History books will traditionally mention the duration of slavery and the Civil War, briefly. They will then move on to Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation then fast forward to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his peaceful attempts at obtaining equality. Rarely do history books go into depth about the gap in between, the Jim Crow Era. This is the era were slaves, as stated by W.E.B. Du Bois, had “a brief moment in the sun” before they were returned to a status similar to slavery.

When white settlers and law makers realized that their economy would surely fail, without the direct dependency of slave labor, they knew that the system must be replaced. After the Civil War, the South was in shambles and almost four-million slaves had been freed. Though slaves were subsequently “free,” Jim Crow had put them back where they started. With no education and legal status, newly freed slaves went back to their plantations seeking jobs, as share croppers and servants. They moved back into their slave quarters, given a mule, a plot of land to work on, and a deadline. The catch was is that plantation owners would rent out the mule and the plot of land thus causing the newly freed slave, and their off-spring, to be forever in debt. As politics began to have a greater influence on the South, black people were later subjugated to “black laws,” or “black codes.”  If a Negro were to be idol and unemployed they would be legally thrown into jail. These codes furthered the stereotype that, those of African descent, were dangerous, unruly, and, must be controlled by their white peers.

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