1. What the term means
- The phrase “mass imprisonment” was coined by sociologist David Garland in 2000 to describe the massive expansion of imprisonment in the US between 1975 and the late 1990s. This new regime of punishment differed in two remarkable ways: 1) the sheer scale and magnitude of the increased use of imprisonment in a departure from historic norms and 2) the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population without social scientific evidence that punishment has a strong relationship with crime control.
2. Scale: There are more than 2.4 million people behind bars in America
- Approximately one out of every four prisoners on the entire planet are in U.S. prisons, but the United States only accounts for about five percent of the total global population. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. Incredibly, 41 percent of all young people in America have been arrested by the time they turn 23. 12 million people cycle through prison in a single year. 7 to 8 million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision (including probation and parole).
- Tennessee incarceration rates have gone from just over 100 people incarcerated per 100,000 people in the 1970s to over 400 in 2010.
3. Systematic Imprisonment of groups: Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color
- African-Americans in the 1990s, who only comprised 13% of regular drug users, made up for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. The primary drug user was and remains white.
- The incarceration rate for African-American men is more than 6 times higher than it is for white men.
- In Tennessee, African-Americans represent 17 percent of the population but are 44 percent of the incarcerated population.
- An astounding 2 percent of African-American men from age 20 to age 34 with less than a high school education were incarcerated in 2008. 1 out of 3 black men face incarceration across their lifetime.
- There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War
- Native Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are similarly disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration.
4. Mass Incarceration is not linked to crime rates, but to shifts in sentencing policies and other criminal justice practices
- There is no social scientific evidence that punishment has a strong relationship with crime control.
- Mass incarceration began at a moment when violent and nonviolent offenses were already nationally in decline.
- Sentencing policies in connection with the war on drugs, police discretion and racial profiling, and law and order responses to the Civil Rights movement are all considered to be responsible for the dramatic increase in imprisonment.
- More than 80% of the 1.5 million drug arrests in the U.S. in 2012 were for drug possession only.
- Individuals are more likely to reenter the criminal justice system after incarceration.
5. Mass Incarceration impacts people and groups disproportionately through policies that criminalize vulnerability
- The criminalization of poverty
- The criminalization of homelessness
- The criminalization of mental illness
- The criminalization of children and youth
- The criminalization of migrants
- The criminalization of women (including the criminalization of pregnancy; shackling and separation from children; and other reproductive justice issues)
- The incorporatization and custodial neglect of the ill, aging, and dying into prisons
6. Mass Incarceration has collateral consequences that worsen the lives and life chances of individuals, families, and communities
- 7 million children in the U.S. are growing up with an incarcerated parent. 2/3 of those parents were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Of those children, 400,000 are age four or younger. This carceral separation of parents and children has long-term impacts upon children’s life odds.
- A large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) According to Michelle Alexander, these men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated by law to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
- Mass incarceration exacerbates the systemic and structural neglect of over-policed, over-incarcerated communities
7. Mass Incarceration is expensive for citizens and profitable for corporations
- It costs more than 60 billion dollars a year to keep all of these people locked up.
- Between 1987 and 2007, U.S. prison spending increased 127%, and higher education spending rose by only 21%.
- The privatization of prisons has grown with mass incarceration. The Corrections Corporation of America (the largest private prison owner in the US), headquartered in Nashville, TN, saw a 500% increase in profits over the last 20 years.
- Many major companies have investments and contracts with prisons through labor and provision of services. The prison-industrial complex has built a powerful political lobby.
8. Mass Incarceration shortens lives
- The individual and collective loss of family members who die violent deaths or are disappeared to prisons
- School– and cradle-to-prison pipelines: the foreclosure of children’s lives in custody and suspension when everyday problems are treated as criminal offenses and the resourcing of criminal justice trumps education, health care, employment, safety, etc.
- The dehumanization and living death of solitary confinement
- The death penalty and its impacts upon the families of victims and the condemned
- The chronic stress diseases and premature deaths of loved ones who engage in the exhausting daily work of job, home, and justice, attempting to bring public attention to carceral conditions and maintain contact with their loved ones in confinement
9. Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice and life beyond
- Officer-involved shootings and killings; militarization of the police; racialized stop and frisk practices; police practices that spatialize, segregate, and surveil
- Racial disparity, fees, and plea bargains in the court system
- The erasure of the psychic, affective, and emotional life of living within and against carceral regimes and the toll of that existence
- The erasure of the precarity (#blacklivesmatter, #YourLifeMatters) of life within a carceral regime and the dispossession that underpins it
10. There are alternatives
- Fund education. Not prisons.
- Invest in impoverished communities and reduce their contact with the criminal justice system.
- Be aware of the promotion of carceral logics via progressive and liberal discourses invoked largely by white middle class citizens distanced from the experiences of communities hard hit by the forces of mass incarceration.
- Be aware of how the media/public discourse responsibilizes actors caught in contexts of structural violence through carceral and criminalizing logics (and the struggle to resist internalization of these discourses)
- Think through alternative models of justice, including restorative and transformative justice models
- Give attention to grassroots efforts by communities struggling with mass incarceration.
- Reimagine what “safety” truly means for a community.
- Add to this list in the spaces below…
Transformative Justice is one example of an alternative approach to justice. It is a concept that has been advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.
How is it different from criminal justice?