As defined by the Bread for the World Institution, mass incarceration is a term for the extremely high rate of incarceration in the United States for both adults and youth. It refers to the large number of Americans who are at higher risk of being, who are currently, and who have been, incarcerated in jail, prison or subject to a court-ordered probation. Mass incarceration, specifically due to the war on drugs, has been a sly, but intentional attack on black and brown communities. The intense crackdown on drug-related crimes has disproportionately targeted millions of people of color and led to the increasing rate of mass incarceration.
The New York Times Bestseller, “The New Jim Crow,” written by Michelle Alexander, addresses the blatant racism within the United States criminal justice system and unpacks racial control driven by the war on drugs, which is comparable to the Jim Crow Era . Alexander explains, people of all races use and sell drugs illegally at astonishingly similar rates, yet prisons are overflowing with black and brown people convicted for identical drug crimes as white people. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates of twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. As many as 80 percent of young African American men living in cities victimized by the war on drugs have criminal records that will “justify” legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.
Although the war on drugs had sparked the significant incline of mass incarceration, there are three factors that sustain its impact: 1) over-policing in redlined and marginalized communities, 2) longer sentencing for minor crimes, and 3) endless restrictions after being released. Once you are labeled as a felon, your right to employment, affordable housing, education opportunities and schooling, the right to vote, access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other public benefits are forcefully ripped away. Actually, federal law permanently bans people with felony drug convictions from receiving SNAP and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), thus making mass incarceration a huge contributor to the hunger and poverty crisis in America.
According to the National Institute of Health, 91 percent of people transitioning from incarceration report experiencing food insecurity. Additional studies have shown that when a family member was incarcerated, 70 percent of households have difficulty meeting basic needs, such as food and housing. It has been estimated that U.S. poverty would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration. Generally, compared to other industrialized countries like Russia, China and Germany, the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates.
The fact of the matter is, there is no quick solution to fixing a system designed to work against black, indigenous and people of color. This discrimination is not new, it has been built on years, and years of racism and prejudice; mass incarceration has simply evolved into the number one way to oppress the black community. Though it will be an uphill battle, Bread for the World Institution has highlighted the four priorities to incorporate in reform to reconstruct our justice system: 1) reducing crime, 2) rethinking how we define crime and sentencing, 3) rehabilitating incarcerated individuals, and 4) ensuring that people successfully re-enter their communities. With these goals in mind, there is potential to reconstruct a system that will provide and enforce justice for all.