An Introduction to Mass Incarceration, part 1

This is the 1st in a series of 5 posts discussing mass incarceration.

Last summer, I took part in a political advocacy internship with the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). One of my tasks was to research and begin to put together a list of sources relating to mass incarceration. As I went through my research, I became more and more amazed at how broken the American incarceration system is and at the seeming lack of awareness and engagement by the public on the issue. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that we should be concerned about mass incarceration, and that we should be working to help change the system.

“Mass Incarceration” is a term that refers to the current system of incarceration in the United States. There are currently around 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in the United States, serving time in either jail or prison. This is a number that has increased significantly over the last 35 years. This is the largest prison population in the world, prompting many people to note that the United States has 4% of the world’s total population and 25% of the world’s prison population (see also this video by Hank Green). The United States as a whole also has the world’s highest incarceration rate per capita, with 36 states and Washington, D.C. having a higher incarceration rate than Cuba, the second country on the list.

The term “Mass Incarceration” does not only refer to the large increase in the prison population in the United States, but to the racial make-up of the prison population. Under the current system of mass incarceration, poor and minority populations in the U.S. are being more adversely affected than other systems. According to the New York Times, a little under half of the state and federal prison population is black. The article also cited a statistic from the Bureau of Justice saying that a black boy born in 2001 has a 32.2% chance of serving time behind bars.

The large prison population is also tearing families apart. In 2007, 1 in 15 black children, 1 in 42 Latino children, and 1 in 111 white children had a parent in prison. Overall, 1.7 million children had a parent in prison in 2007. This number does not only represent incarcerated fathers, as a significant rise in female incarceration has meant that mothers are also incarcerated.

The significant rise in the prison population is often attributed in part to drug crime and sentencing. Legislation was passed throughout the 1980s giving significant mandatory minimum sentences to different drug crimes, requiring a 5 or 10 year mandatory minimum sentence for certain crimes. These sentences were considered by many to be both unusual (the largest sentence for drug possession before 1988 was one year)[i] and racially biased. For example, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine (considered to be a “white” drug) triggered a mandatory 5 year minimum sentence, while 5 grams of crack cocaine (considered to be a “black” drug) triggered the same sentence. Increased sentence length and convictions has meant that more people are spending more time in prison, contributing to the rise in the prison population. This 100:1 sentencing ratio recently became an 18:1 ratio, but the numbers are still highly skewed to harsher crack cocaine punishment.

Another noted contributing factor is the rise in prison admissions for probation or parole violations. Nearly 35% of prison admissions in 2000 were for parole violations; in other words, more people were admitted to prison for parole violations in 2000 than were admitted to prison for any reason in 1980.[ii] This rise in parole violations can be partially understood when we see how difficult it can be to meet parole requirements. Parolees are often required to obtain and maintain employment, which is difficult with a felony conviction on record. They can also be required to pay any number of fees for services, drug testing, and many other possible offenses. Fees related to pre-trial booking, containment, and lawyer’s fees (even for a public defendant) can be levied against people being held in jails. With two thirds of people being held in jails reporting an annual income under $12,000, it is not a surprise that many fees cannot be paid and parolees will be re-admitted to jails and prisons.[iii]

The current prison system also seems to be fiscally unsustainable. The United States spent around $80 billion on prisons and jails in 2010. The U.S. Department of Justice recently estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, but a report from the Vera Institute of Justice suggests that this number is a severe underestimate (see also a report by CBS). Many states have also come to use and rely on private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or Geo Group, as a way to cut the cost of prisons. These are publicly traded corporations, meaning that American prisoners are essentially being traded on the stock exchange.

The statistics and information above serve only as the beginning of the discussion on mass incarceration. This blog post series will consist of five total posts. They will discuss why Christians should engage the issue of mass incarceration and how people can engage the issue. This series is also the major piece of my capstone project for my degree program at Denver Seminary.

[i] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 54.

[ii] Ibid, 95.

[iii] Ibid, 154-157.


3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Mass Incarceration, part 1

  1. Courtney Eppler

    Erik, this post is well researched and understandable. I am looking forward to seeing how people respond to your take. Now that we have the facts, I am curious to know why we should care about this and if we should care, how we should respond. Ready to ready the next post! Thanks!

  2. Good summary. Makes me wonder why the United States locks up so many people. What makes us different from other rich countries? Is this how American racism expresses itself in the post-civil rights era?

    1. Both questions are important, and need to be deeply thought about. One answer to the first question is that the United States has chosen to see drug use as a criminal issue more than as a public health issue. Other developed countries have first-time penalties that are typically no greater than a year at most. There is additionally a greater focus on rehabilitation than on penalization.

      On the second question, it does seem that this is one major way that American is expressing itself, especially at an institutional level. Many laws and policing strategies target communities of color at a greater level than white communities. There have also been statistics that show that persons of color are more likely to receive the death penalty than white people. The work to be done here is to begin to see how systems and institutions operate; racism is not just a person to person issue.

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