What is mass incarceration?
Mass incarceration is a massive system of racial and social control. It is the process by which people are swept into the criminal justice system, branded criminals and felons, locked up for longer periods of time than most other countries in the world who incarcerate people who have been convicted of crimes, and then released into a permanent second-class status in which they are stripped of basic civil and human rights, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to public benefits.
It is a system that operates to control people, often at early ages, and virtually all aspects of their lives after they have been viewed as suspects in some kind of crime.
Give me a sense of what’s happened over the last 40 years in terms of the numbers of people in prison, in terms of how it’s affected specific communities, whether it’s very high turnover or people coming on now.
For a very long time, criminologists believed that there was going to be a stable rate of incarceration in the United States. About 100 of 100,000 people were incarcerated, and that rate remained constant up until into the early 1970s. And then suddenly there was a dramatic increase in incarceration rates in the United States, more than a 600 percent increase in incarceration from the mid-1960s until the year 2000.
An exceptional growth in the size of our prison population, it was driven primarily by the war on drugs, a war that was declared in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon and which has increased under every president since. It is a war that has targeted primarily nonviolent offenders and drug offenders, and it has resulted in the birth of a penal system unprecedented in world history.
So America has a higher incarceration rate than other nations. Do they have a higher crime rate than other nations?
No. The United States actually has a crime rate that is lower than the international norm, yet our incarceration rate is six to 10 times higher than other countries’ around the world.
It’s not crime that makes us more punitive in the United States. It’s the way we respond to crime and how we view those people who have been labeled criminals.
You said it started with Nixon. Give me a sense of the progression and how through each president since Nixon the incarceration system has been ramped up, and sometimes in unexpected ways. …
Some of our system of mass incarceration really has to be traced back to the law-and-order movement that began in the 1950s, in the 1960s. …
Segregationists began to worry that there was going to be no way to stem the tide of public opinion and opposition to the system of segregation, so they began labeling people who are engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and protests as criminals and as lawbreakers, and [they] were saying that those who are violating segregation laws were engaging in reckless behavior that threatens the social order and demanded … a crackdown on these lawbreakers, these civil rights protesters.
This rhetoric of law and order evolved as time went on, even though the old Jim Crow system fell and segregation was officially declared unconstitutional. Segregation[ists] and former segregation[ists] began using get-tough rhetoric as a way of appealing to poor and working-class whites in particular who were resentful of, fearful of many of the gangs of African Americans in the civil rights movement.
Pollsters and political strategists found that thinly veiled promises to get tough on “them,” a group suddenly not so defined by race, was enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves.
Unfortunately, this backlash against the civil rights movement was occurring at precisely the same moment that there was economic collapse in communities of color, inner-city communities across America.
In an excellent book by William Julius Wilson, entitled When Work Disappears, he describes how in the ’60s and the ’70s, work literally vanished in these communities. Hundreds of thousands of black people, especially black men, suddenly found themselves jobless.
As factories closed, jobs were shipped overseas, deindustrialization and globalization led to depression in inner-city communities nationwide, and crime rates began to rise. And as they rose and the backlash against the civil rights movement reached a fever pitch, the get-tough movement exploded into a zeal for incarceration, and a war on drugs was declared.