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Relationship between Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1461 words Published: 3rd Nov 2021

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Mass incarceration is a common topic brought up amongst criminologists, as well as sociologists. However, a lot of U.S. citizens do not realize how insane and enormous our prison population is. Racism, also plays a role in our society today. The two can come together and they do quite often. Racial discrimination plays a part in mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is also considered the new Jim Crow laws of today. Not only does mass incarceration affect the prisoners but it affects their family/community as well.

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History of Mass Incarceration

There has been a huge increase in imprisonment between the years of 1970 through the 2000s. Incarceration rates, up until about the mid 1970’s, were steady, after which they started to change rapidly because of more punitive criminal justice policies. The war on drugs played a significant part in the increase of incarceration. “the nation, and the incarceration rate of inner-city dwellers ever dramatically. While in 1970 there had been only 322,300 drug-related arrests in the United States, in 2000 that figure was 1,375,600 (Thompson). The cracking down on drugs lead black people, as well as other minorities, behind bars. “In the 1980’s alone African American’s “share” of drug crimes jumped from 26.9 percent to 46.0 percent, and arrested black juveniles were 37 percent more likely to be transferred to adult courts, where they faced tougher sanctions” (Thompson). However, white adolescents and adults are either more likely to use drugs or relatively the same amount as a black person. A study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, back in 2000, determined that Caucasian students were more likely to use heroin and cocaine compared to black students. They also stated that white students were also more likely to sale illegal drugs than black students.

Mass Incarceration & Jim Crow Laws

Mass incarceration is being compared to the new Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws were laws that enforced racial segregation. “Blacks now make up a larger portion of the prison population than they did at the time of Brown v. Board of Education, and their lifetime risk of incarceration has doubled” (Forman). When looking back in history, 1960’s and prior 1960’s, a lot of us often wonder how humans can be so cruel with not allowing blacks, as well as other racial minorities, have the same rights as white people. We often wonder how we allowed blacks to be treated like second class citizens. However, what a lot of individuals do not realize is it is still happening today. “More African American adults are under correctional control today-in prison or jail, on probation or parole-than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began (Alexander). The United States did not get rid of blatant racism, they just got better at hiding it. For example, many American’s do not know that crack cocaine is mostly used by black people and cocaine is mainly used by white, upper class people. This is important because although they are basically the same drug, crack cocaine is just larger and cocaine is mashed up enough to snort, crack cocaine will get a person more jail time. The laws were made that way to basically throw minorities, such as blacks, into jail. Law makers knew that most black people were more likely to purchase crack cocaine because it’s cheaper. Racism is so embedded in our criminal justice system that it often goes unnoticed now or people just turn a blind eye. No one wants to admit or see that we never grew as a society, we just found different ways to partake in being racist at a national level.

Family Life

Mass incarceration has a significant impact on families. “By 1999, thirty percent of non-college black men in their mid-thirties had been to prison and, through incarceration, many were separated from their wives, girlfriends, and children” (Western and Wildeman). The absent husbands/father’s put’s a serious strain on the wife, as well as the kid(s). A lot of times this leads to single moms taking care of the child or children. Single moms make up quite a bit of the lower class and it can affect children remarkably. The children often times have poor living conditions. The kids of absent fathers can frequently go without food. They are also more likely to skip school and get into trouble. As you can see, often times things come into full circle. The kids of absent fathers a lot of times end up in prison/jail too when they are older. Also, mass incarceration has had an impact on marriage. “Marriage rates for black women halved from sixty to around thirty percent” (Western and Wildeman). Mass incarceration has an impact on family lives, in particularly black families.


Women, as well as girls, are growing in the criminal justice system. Just like with men, women of a racial minority group are more likely to end up behind bars than a white woman. “Black women are 6.9 times more likely than white women to be brought under the system and that Latinas are 2.5 times more likely than white women tells us that the social surveillance and control of women can also be framed as a racialized enterprise,” states Crenshaw. Quite a few factors have contributed in women getting incarcerated. Drugs and prostitution are two of the more common reasons females end up in jail/prison. “Incarceration for drug-related offenses accounted for an eightfold rise in African American women and Latina supervision between 1986 and 1991” (Crenshaw 24). There is also overlapping between mass incarceration and child welfare. It is not only a big problem for African American women but an even bigger one for immigrant mothers. Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Communities program often puts a lot of pressure on immigrant women in a form of social control. A lot of times these women have to put up a good fight in order to defend themselves. According to the article “mothers have to personify the judges’ image of a good mother in order to win: self-sacrificing, humble, law abiding and English speaking” (Crenshaw 26). A lot of times though these migrant mothers face double standards that men do not have to face. For example, saving up money so they can return home and be reunited with their child or children. Also, leaving the children with relatives while they try and get their life together. These women are often ridiculed for these things. “Because detained mothers are often in networks in which those whom the mother might designate as acceptable caretakers are unable to come forward because of their own status, or agencies will not accept them if they do, their ability to negotiate alternatives to foster care is limited” (Crenshaw 26). Women, especially minority women, face great difficulty within the criminal justice system and mass incarceration as well.


All in all, mass incarceration is a big problem in the United States. It plays a significant part in being hidden racism. It hurts racial minority women, men, and families. Until citizens are exposed to how racial inequality plays a role in mass incarceration then it is going to be around for a very long time.


Western, B., & Wildeman, C. (2008). “Punishment, inequality, and The Future of Mass Incarceration.” U. Kan. L. Rev.57, 851.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2011). From private violence to mass incarceration: Thinking Intersectionally About Women, Race, and Social Control.” UCLA L. Rev.59, 1418.

Pettit, B., & Sykes, B. L. (2015, June). “Civil Rights Legislation and Legalized Exclusion: Mass Incarceration and The Masking of Inequality.” In Sociological Forum (Vol. 30, pp. 589-611).

Oliver, P. (2008). “Repression and crime control: Why Social Movement Scholars Should Pay Attention to Mass Incarceration as a Form of Repression.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly13(1), 1-24.

Western, B., & Wildeman, C. (2009). “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science621(1), 221-242.

Alexander, M. (2011). “The New Jim Crow.” Ohio St. J. Crim. L.9, 7.

Forman Jr, J. (2012). “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond The New Jim Crow.” NYUL Rev.87, 21.

Thompson, H. A. (2010). Why mass incarceration matters: “Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History97(3), 703-734.


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