Research on Mass Incarceration

The issue of Mass incarceration varies from country to country with the United States having a bigger prison population. Mass incarceration has a long history and includes factors such as racial profiling, color blindness, and the war on drugs. The rates of the incarceration of people of color were seen to increase after the Civil Rights era (Clifton, 2017). Mass incarceration was first seen before in history as slavery, which then it was evolved into other versions: the old and new Jim Crow. Imprisonment is not only the aspect of the justice system which targets people of color, but it also includes a larger web of laws, rules, and policies which are mostly directed towards people of color. Mass incarceration is currently made up of three different phases; the roundup, the court system, and the invisible punishment. This problem began to rise in 1970 when the ¨war on drugs¨ was created by the government as a way of being ¨tough on crime¨. The war on drugs caused the prison populations to explode which devastated color communities the most.

A result of this was that race discrimination was transformed into an ethic of color blindness. Within the war on drugs, people of color were commonly associated as criminals and it was perfectly legal to discriminate. This is reflected in the thirteenth amendment which states that slavery is abolished except as a punishment for a crime. The government mainly created the war on drugs to genesis the color community, in which people of color were used to publicize drugs such as crack cocaine.

The United States of America is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world in which the colored communities are affected the most. It is home to five percent of the world’s population and home to twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners which means that one out of every four people is part of the prison population (13th, 2016). As a result, the population in both local and state prisons began to explode which developed into overpopulation in these institutions and as a result more money being spent towards the creation of more prisons. Mass incarceration is not only victimizing individuals, but the criminal system is also affecting towns, communities, and families.

Multiple laws and policies have been created to entangle innocent people to the criminal system such as ¨Pretext stops¨ in which a police can use anything as an excuse to stop an individual and check them for drugs. In the Monterey County people with minor offenses are given a similar sentence as those who commit crimes such as murder, within this the minority has become the majority in the criminal system which has resulted in mass incarceration (Appendix A). It has been visible that a mass amount of people are behind bars which has not resulted in safer communities. Rather, incarceration has contributed to the imprisonment of innocent people and the destruction of families both physically and mentally.

Mass incarceration includes different factors that are color blindness, racial profiling and the continuous cycle it has and which has not yet came to a stop. Also all the different effects it has on inmate and communities. Within this families are also forced to face both physical and mental situations.

History of Mass Incarceration

The idea that people of color are criminals began after the American Civil War in which a fear of people of color spread following the end of slavery. People of color were arrested for minor crimes such as littering. The image of people of color was portrayed as criminals in the media such as in propaganda. In the film Birth of a Nation, people of color were filmed and shown as savages and rapists. This is where the term ¨Black criminality¨ derives from, in which an animal like image from these people of color was shown as if they were a threat to whites, especially women (13th, 2016). Even though that is proven false, in the 13th (2016) it is stated how there is more white rape against color women than color men to white women. After the Civil rights movement, criminality was transformed in which race was no longer an issue and instead the term ¨criminal¨ was put to use. In 1970, mass incarceration began to arise in which the War on drugs was created, where drug addiction was seen as a crime instead of a health issue and, according to the 13th (2016), its main purpose was to throw people of color in jail.

The war on drugs was officially launched on 1982 at the time of declining drug use and in 1985 more than half of the prisoners had sentences because of a drug offense (Rigelhaupt, 2012). This was a war took over color communities at the beginning it was a strategy however then it became a literal war against color communities. As a result of the war on drugs, people of color were portrayed in the news as criminals more than they actually were and are usually associated with the term ¨criminal¨ because they are shown as violent, drug dealers, burglars, and overall felons who must be locked up.

Within this, police were allowed to terrorize whomever they felt like, where people of color became the ones most likely to be terrorized because of the laws and policies the government passed. In the research conducted by Becky Petit and Bruce Western (2004), it showed that the incarceration rate for men of color is eight times more than whites. Even though white youth are more particularly involved in drugs than people of color, the rate is seven times more for people of color (Alexander, 2012).

During the war on drugs and when laws and policies aimed toward people of color were established, some famous activists rose against it. Activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers, along with help of the media, were seen as threats to the nation’s security. Martin Luther King Jr. like others was considered one of the most dangerous people in America. Angela Davis within the media became portrayed as one of the top ten fugitives in the world because she was an activist which led to the media showing her as a dangerous criminal. The Black Panthers group was also portrayed as a threat to American Democracy which led to the death of the leader one night when he was accompanied by his pregnant wife.

Government Involvement

Throughout history, the media and the government have worked together towards portraying people of color as criminals. These ideologies led to racial profiling which contributes to Mass Incarceration and is condemned by the laws passed. Police officers use many excuses to stop and arrest people of color, such as the “pretext¨ stops, and ¨stop and frisk.¨ These stops are mainly enforced towards people of color because of the way they are viewed as by other people in the nation.

Police officers are able to use any suspicious behavior to stop and search for drugs which is a common way to hunt for drugs. This excuse was once used in a well-known case which is Terry vs. Ohio, in which unusual conduct by someone allows the officer to stop them if the officer reasonably believes them to be dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. Another example of the web of laws is the Fourth Amendment which permits police officers to do reasonable searches and seizures. This amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to condemn racial profiling. Most of the people of color are targeted and it cannot be proven because the law is considered “race-neutral.”

The idea of the war on drugs was first introduced by Richard Nixon as the southern strategy in which Nixon believed that ¨No progress in America without respect for the law¨ (13th, 2016). Within this multiple changes occurred in the criminal system one of them was the Federal Law enforcement doubling. This strategy was created by the government to destroy the color communities and it has been proven with the recording of Nixon’s adviser who accepted they were lying about the drugs (13th, 2016). After Nixon, Reagan took office and turned the rhetorical war into a literal war which was transformative in negative ways. It later on worsened when Bill Clinton became president who was ¨tough on crime¨ and is known as the ¨Incarceration President¨.

During his term, he created the Mandatory Minimums, which is a mandatory sentence of five or more years for the possession of drugs. Another law that impacted the prison population was the three strikes which means that when three felonies are committed that is equivalent to prison for life. However, the 1994 Crime Bill which put one hundred thousand police officer in the streets caused the most impact in jail population because it caused them to increase this. The Crime Bill also led to the expansion of the crime system.

Politics and corporation are usually not seen together as a mix. However, there is a group of corporations that creates bills and gives them to Republicans. This group operates under the name ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in which corporations and politics get together to suggest laws. Some of the laws that have been created within this group are the three strikes and SB1070, which allowed police officers to stop anyone that looked like an immigrant. Within these laws and policies, it has become visible that people of color get a different treatment compared to whites when in courts or in encounters with police officers.

Effects on Inmates and Families

Inmates are the ones who are affected the most during both the time they are incarcerated and after they are released from prison. They become numb because of the conditions they encounter in jails. Being in prison has been normalized in the adulthood of men of color since people of color are at higher risk of incarceration given to the arrest rates because of drug crimes or burglary (Petit & Western, 2004). In the research by Petit & Western (2004), it was shown that men of color have displayed higher rates of mental disorders than the general population and the correctional facilities in the United States. It has also shown that colored men inmates have been reported with symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression followed by mania, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Once the inmates exit the criminal system they do not become completely free and instead they enter the third phase of mass incarceration which is the “invisible punishment”. In this phase, incarcerated individuals are deprived of their rights, such as welfare, housing, financial aid, and from voting. It has been estimated that thirty percent of people of color have a lifetime ban from jury service and also one out of seven people of color have lost their right to vote (Rigelhaupt, 2012). Many people have lost their life because of the criminal system and the effects it has on them after. An example of this is Kalief Browder, a young African American who was accused of theft. After three years of awaiting trial in Rikers Island he was declared innocent, however, the damage was already done. During those three years, he faced abuse from both the inmates and the guards. After two years of being free, he committed suicide which is a similar experience many people of color have to face once they enter or exit from the criminal system (13th, 2016).

Not only are the individuals affected, but families are also majorly affected because of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration produces unstable families and is known to depress marriage and cohabitation among unwed parents. Children are seen to be the most affected when a parent is found guilty of a nonviolent or drug offense. 1.7 million kids have a parent behind the bars for a nonviolent offense (Pettit & Western, 2004). The research made by Clifton revealed that particularly boys of incarcerated parents are at a higher risk of developmental delays and behavioral problems both at home and outside.

Mass Incarceration Cycle

Mass Incarceration is known to be a continuous and never-ending cycle where the main victims are people of color. One of the most common reasons why people enter this system is poor academic performance and weak attachment to school which causes an individual to turn to either crimes or drugs. In the podcast Misguided Loyalty (2017), Tommy Shakur discusses how not having strong ties to school led him to getting involved in gangs and delinquent activities which eventually caused him to end up behind bars.

In the research conducted by Clifton, it was shown that young men of color in Chicago have a greater probability in ending in prison than going to college or joining the military. In which instead of experiencing college these young men encounter a lifetime of discrimination and obstacles such as social limitations. Eighty percent of young African American men now have criminal records because of the bias criminal system (Alexander, 2010). In the book, The New Jim Crow Alexander states how this criminal system is full of irony because a kid of color dealing on the streets is no difference to a white guy selling in his dorm however when facing the criminal system they are treated differently because the criminal system treats better the dominant group which is whites.

Personal Bias

With the research provided, it became clear that mass incarceration not only has a global effect but also affects smaller communities such as Salinas, in which the bias system entangles people of color using laws and policies such as the pretext stops. In order to stop mass incarceration from continuing its evolution, we must find a way to help adolescents create a stronger bond to education or activities that will prevent them from engaging in criminal activities or from involvement with drugs.

In Salinas, adolescents who do not care about their education or do not find interest in, it is visible that they are usually the teens who become involved with drugs and later end up in probation, in the Juvenile Hall or drop out of school. Instead, this might be fixed if communities opened activities or more sports that can increase teen involvement and decrease their involvement with criminal activities. The criminal system, instead of making the situation better, causes it to worsen because they treat drug addiction as a crime instead of treating it as a mental health issue and other more serious offenses such as murder are treated with the same seriousness as minor offenses are treated. Racial profiling is also something that can be found in Salinas which leads to mass incarceration and takes away many times the freedom, life, and deprives the people affected by simple things.

These factors include driving down the streets without being stopped and searched just because of the color of their skin which somehow resembles suspicion to police officers. One of the events that has happened in Salinas that relates to this is an incident that happened where a man of color was shot by a police officer right away which caused people to protest. The protests happened due to the belief that if it was a white male, the police officers would not have reacted the way they did and instead would have had found a way in which the suspect was not hurt. In my opinion, police officers should focus on crimes based on the crime, not the ethnicity or race which has not lead to safer streets. Even though a large number of people are behind bars, that has not had a positive outcome, where communities such as Salinas have become safer.

Implication for Future

The lack of interest in education especially in adolescents has been one of the main causes of mass incarceration. Later on, as a response to crime, the government uses the money to invest in both state and local position because they believe that is the best solution. The money invested in prisons has been seen as a waste of money because these institutions have not resulted in safer communities such as Salinas. A more responsive solution that can put the evolution of mass incarceration to a stop is a better study of the problems involved in the criminal system in which race is no longer connected to the term crime. In smaller communities, a possible solution can be a better focus and investment in institutions schools, early childhood education, drug and alcohol treatment, housing, and job programs that will help create a better future for America (Rigelhaupt, 2012) which will acknowledge the problems in a more efficient way rather than entangling the individual to a never-ending cycle.


Several of the articles and book I found were very helpful in helping me understand the different factors that influence mass incarceration and the ways they affect people of color. The documentary the 13th (2016) was also a very helpful resource in which it provided cases and examples where the criminal system was being biased towards people of color. It also helped learn more about the outcomes and challenges people have to face once they enter and exit the criminal system.

Learning and being able to research more about this topic helped me understand the criminal system and this is a problem the minorities in society usually face, which has negative effects on them in which it can cause them to be unstable both mentally and physically on them, their communities and families. Overall my research helped me learn how a person should be targeted as a criminal because of their actions not because of their ethnicity or race.

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Research on mass incarceration. (2021, Jun 18). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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