Did you know that mass incarceration has a direct impact on hunger and food insecurity? There is an apparent disproportionate amount of minorities that are struggling with food insecurity. Hunger in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities is a by-product of a much larger web of systematic and societal issues that disrupt and dismantle these communities.

Instead of looking at the “who” is affected by hunger, Move For Hunger will be looking into the “why” BIPOC people are experiencing hunger. One of the reasons why Black and brown people experience hunger at a greater rate – mass Incarceration.

What is Mass Incarceration? 

At the end of the 20th century, society brought a new kind of slavery to Black and brown people in the United States. Instead of Jim Crow Laws and segregation, we have something called mass incarceration. Bread for the World Institution defines mass incarceration as “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 court-ordered probation. 

Highlighted by the US Department of Justice's own findings, many drug offenders receive unreasonably long prison sentences due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Mandatory minimums were created to leave no space for judges' personal interpretation of crimes committed by the defendant. Created under the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, if a person was found guilty of particular crimes, like the distribution of crack cocaine, then judges were by law forced to give a specific sentence minimum. The judges had no say in the sentence length, type, and were not able to see the person as an individual. Even congress thought this was a bit too harsh and callous. 

The War on Drugs created double standards in punishment from white communities to BIPOC communities. For example, the disproportionate sentencing of crack cocaine and powder cocaine and the communities that consume the drug.. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the possession of five grams of crack cocaine, which is equivalent to just a few rocks. Comparatively, people who were arrested for powder cocaine, the five-year mandatory minimum was only imposed if a person had possession of over a pound! The sentencing disparities of the two nearly identical drugs are glaring with a 100:1 ratio. 

The chemical compounds of crack cocaine and powder cocaine are nearly the same except that crack cocaine has an additive and is boiled down. Crack is made by dissolving powder cocaine and baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, in boiling water. Once the drug is dry, it’s cut into small pieces that resemble “rocks” which are then smoked.

In the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse 2000, it was estimated that illegal drug use is roughly equivalent for non-Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites.  But, due to crack being a cheaper drug, as it is less pure, it was targeted and marketed more towards the Black and brown communities compared to affluent white communities. Although poor white people used crack cocaine as well, police primarily focused their efforts on Black communities in regards to controlling crack usage. 

President Barack Obama in August of 2010, "signed an historic piece of legislation that narrows the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 and for the first time eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.” But the following year in 2011, Blacks were still incarcerated at a dramatically higher rate than Whites (5–7 times for a drug related crime), and accounted for almost half of all prisoners incarcerated with a sentence length of over 1 year.


The United States is the World Leader for Incarcerated People

The United States is the third most populated country on the planet, but has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and the world leader in the total amount of people held in the prison system at 2.2 million. This number doesn’t actually derive from having the most crimes being committed compared to any country in the world. 

The highest international crime rate for 2022 is Venezuela at 83.76. The US Department of State has issued a level 4 travel warning  advising Americans to not travel and immediately leave this South American country. For comparison, the United State’s crime rate is 47.70 and has declined since the 1990s. Sadly the arrest rate, especially for non-violent drug crimes, has dramatically increased.From 1980 to 2010 the drug arrest rate had nearly doubled across the United States.

Sentences for non-violent drug crimes have become significantly longer and have disproportionately affected low income and marginalized  populations. This has landed these already vulnerable communities making up 66% of the prison populations in the United States since the mid 1980s.  

Felons and Discrimination

The New York Times Bestseller, “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, addresses and highlights the blatant racism within the criminal justice system in the United States, and unpacks racial control driven by the war on drugs, which is comparable to the Jim Crow Era. 

Alexander explains that 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 due to harsher and unequal sentences and charges. For the same crime, 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. Alexander highlights in his book that, once you are labled as a felon, even for minor drug crimes, old ways of discriminating against marginalized communities is legal and justified again which simply redesigning the American racial caste system.

Lack of Ability for Assistance and Resources

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 employment, affordable housing, and education opportunities are made increasingly more difficult. For formerly incarcerated people, finding non-discriminatory employers, career paths, landlords, and communities that are welcoming and accepting of felons can be extremely difficult. The difficulties of returning to society after incarceration and a felony charge is encapsulated in the term of collateral consequences. For people who have a criminal history, access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is typically still accessible after their release.  But in some states, individuals who have received felony drug convictions are ineligible 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. 

Mass incarceration also affects immigrants. After the passing of the Homeland Security Act in 2003, precedent was set forth for the creation of one of the agencies in the new Department of Homeland Security. Formerly known as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, today the agency is known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE for short. According to a study conducted by the American Journal of Public Health in 2019, the number of immigrants and children being detained, separated, and incarcerated perpetuates fear, anxiety, and poor health among immigrant communities, and “the potential public health effects of aggressive immigration enforcement must be better acknowledged and addressed in immigration debates.”

Recidivism and Basic Human Needs

Recidivism, which is defined as the rate at which a person who was previously incarcerated will reoffend and re-enter the prison system, is incredibly high. In 2014, the U.S Department of Justice published a study that lasted over 5 months in 2005 and across 30 states and followed 400,000 inmates and their journey after being released from prison. Within five months of being released from prison, 76.6% of the prisoners who were released were arrested again. With the lack of access to basic human needs after being released from prison, it’s no surprise former felons find themselves back behind bars.


What can be done?

The fact of the matter is, there is no quick solution to fixing a system designed to work against Black, indigenous, and other racial minorities. 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. As the world evolves, the way that oppressive systems operate may look different but they create similar challenges and problems for Black and brown people.

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. The first priority is to reduce crime, the second to rethink sentencing, the third priority to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals, and lastly to ensure people successfully re-enter their communities by reducing their risk of hunger and poverty. 

What Can YOU Do?

As everyday people who may or may not be directly involved with the criminal justice system, there are things that YOU can do to help fight hunger with its connection to mass incarceration. 

You can do research into your local and statewide politicians that support similar values to you, ensure you're making informed decisions on voting day, write letters to your elected officials who are currently representing you. Let them know what issues are important to you when voting on bills in congress, and how that will affect their constituents. By doing effective research, you’re ensuring that you will make informed decisions on voting day. Sources like BallotReady.org and USA.gov can help you learn more about your government office contenders. 

You may not have direct power over how the criminal justice system charges and sentences, but you have power in electing officials who do have power in changing policies that affect the greater society. Screenshot 2022-09-15 at 12-14-29 Mass Incarceration Blog Update.png

If you come from a white background, something you can do in your life is acknowledging your privilege in society as it pertains to economic and societal advantages when it comes to racism and discrimination. Talking with people from Black and brown backgrounds can help open your eyes to discrimination and racism that you’ve never personally experienced and can help you talk about systematic racism and its impact on greater society. 

Do you want to learn more about fighting hunger and racial issues? To take action is continuing to learn about food justice. Supporting hunger relief organizations that focus on racial inequality can help educate you more on these issues: Planting Justice, National Black Food & Justice Alliance, Black Earth Farms, WhyHunger, and Food Empowerment Project are a handful of amazing organizations that work towards BIPOC food justice. 

And don’t forget to Check out Move For Hunger’s Hunger is a Racial Equity Issue, Redlining and Food Justice in America, Latino Families Face Higher Rates of Food Insecurity, and our Advocacy page to get involved today!