Black men account for 40.2% of the United States prison population. (Grace Lewis)
Black men account for 40.2% of the United States prison population.

Grace Lewis

Mass Incarceration in America

March 14, 2017

The United States is home to only 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. At this moment, 40.2% of that prison population is made up of black men behind bars, when they only account for 6.5% of people in the United States. This ever increasing phenomenon, known as mass incarceration, is unique to America.

As of today we have over 2,220,300 people in our prison system (US Bureau of Justice Statistics). How did it get to be this way?

Recently I watched 13th, a documentary addressing the extreme imprisonment problem in America, which targets young African American men. The documentary traces the roots of mass incarceration back to the dawn of our country. From slavery to Jim Crow to modern day racial profiling, African Americans weren’t granted the same human, political, and social rights white Americans enjoyed. And now here we are today: 1 in 3 black men are expected to go to prison compared to 1 in 17 white men, Black Lives Matter is striving for racial equality, and that equality is still not wholly evident…especially in our criminal justice system.

In 1970, the Nixon years and beginning of the exponential rise of our prison population, the United States held 357,292 prisoners (13th).

Pushing Law and Order, the Nixon Administration promised a War on Drugs. Appealing to white middle-class Americans, Law and Order was used as a dog-whistle term relating to race. Nixon sent a message with the term: He would make drugs a national issue and “clean up” America. In all actuality, the War on Drugs was targeting black communities. In an interview with a former member of Nixon’s administration, it was admitted that the War on Drugs and Law and Order was pushed to specifically criminalize these groups of people.

“[We], had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” said John Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon. Clear as day, African Americans have been targeted by the criminal justice system.

By 1980, the United States held 513,900 prisoners (13th).

Succeeding Nixon’s War on Drugs, Reagan followed his footsteps, this time focusing on crack cocaine, the new “form” of cocaine, hitting the streets in the mid 80’s, and becoming quickly associated with black urban communities. In reality, crack is the smokable version of cocaine, the only difference being the removal of hydrochloride ( Socially however, cocaine is seen as the elite form of crack, typically viewed to be used by whites and far less dangerous. Targeting crack users, unfair sentencing was employed. People charged with 1 gram of crack were given the same sentence as those charged with 18g grams of cocaine; this 18:1 ratio was reduced in 2010 from the 100:1 ratio (

By 1985, resulting from the severe criminalization of drug users, many of them young black men, US prison population had risen to 795,100 (13th).

That criminalization of drug users is striking even today: 86% of the federal prison population is charged with nonviolent victimless crime, 50% charged with drug offenses in 2009 ( Why are we focusing on incarceration instead of rehabilitation?

Then we moved into the Clinton age, riddled with new prison policies. His 1994 Crime Bill, which he later denounced as too harsh, set forth longer sentences and a broader net in imprisoning people.

Coming into 1990 we had 1,179, 200 prisoners (13th).

And now here we are today, in our country, the Land of the Free. Mass incarceration has jumped into hyperdrive as private prison corporations, a loophole in the 13th Amendment, and a  government playing off perceived threats and fears, continue to unfairly and disproportionately throw black men in prison for profit, free labor, and votes.

A private prison “or a for-profit prison is a place in which individuals are physically confined or incarcerated by a third party that is contracted by a government agency,” (Wikipedia). An institution imprisoning human beings for profit is far from moral. The nature of these complexes almost begs for inhumanity and cruelty: as private commercialized systems gain more bodies, they’re able to stuff more money into their pockets. Private prison corporations have an incentive, mandated by the government, to increase their prisoner count. It’s no coincidence that the surge of privatization in prisons occurred in the 1980’s, the same time “criminals”, more often black men, were being picked up off the streets at alarming rates (

Used extensively by private prisons and federal ones, prisoners are subject to hard free-labor. This is only legal through a concession in the 13th Amendment, the one intended to extinguish slavery in America.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” (Section 1, Amendment 13, Constitution of the United States).

This “except” gives our criminal justice system the authority to use “duly-convicted” criminals for unpaid labor…isn’t that kind of relationship the one we were trying to eliminate in the 13th Amendment? Didn’t hundreds of thousands of Americans die in the Civil War for the end of slavery? What about “all Men are created Equal”?

Nevertheless, Big Business is making millions off of this involuntary servitude, and we, as a nation of consumers, are benefitting. Every time we put down a dollar, we’re voting.

Despite this complex mess of an issue, it’s easy to find the source. Human beings react most efficiently to fear. Whether we like it or not, when we feel threatened, that’s when we respond. Today we can see our government has conformed to that loop of emotion and action, pushing policies and agendas through by addressing our greatest fears. Nixon called for “Law and Order” when people’s cookie-cutter worlds were shook up by the revolutionary movements occurring: Civil Rights, Anti-War, second-wave feminism, gay rights. Reagan’s war on drugs was the response to white middle-class America’s fear of “crack”, the built-up and racially profiled drug. Clinton passed major criminal reform as those hopped up addicts began to threaten and terrorize our country.

And now we’ve elected the “Law and Order candidate” who is closing off borders with the fear of immigrants, erecting a huge wall to shut ourselves in, and advocating DEFENSE DEFENSE DEFENSE.

“Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime, numbers that have surged over the past year to highs not seen for more than a decade,” ( These fears that Trump instills are a way to gain followers. No more can we follow out of fear.

Our unfair criminal justice policies and attitudes did not need to unfold the way they did. They only developed that way because we allowed it. Encasing our entire country, our government dictates everything, but as a democracy, we contribute to what that government is. We are responsible as much as our representatives, so blaming the Big Bad Government is not a credible cop out. If we want change, we need to push. If we want to stop reacting to fear, we need to stop letting perceived fear control our politics.

Mass incarceration is a cancer, feeding off fear and decimating populations across America, targeting African American men. We can’t be ignorant any more, this is not who we, as a country, should be.


In 2014 the United States held 2,306,200 prisoners (13th).

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