African American Men and Mass Incarceration in America

With the current climate of the government, it seems that increasingly African American people are being killed or imprisoned. The rate that African Americans, especially men, have been incarcerated in America is growing exponentially. It seems that every day a new person is found guilty of either a crime they may not have committed or that they are getting sentenced to an exaggerated number of years for small crimes that they possibly did or did not commit. Since the addition of the 13th amendment in 1865 to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery, African American people especially African American men have had targets on their backs with an effort by Caucasian Americans to put them back into slavery even though it has since been abolished.

This new generation of slavery is what is known as the American prison system.

Beginning in 1865, after the abolishment of slavery, Jim Crow laws were put into place. It was in that moment that African American men would no longer be considered free.

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Black codes were also put in place by southern states after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. Black codes were used to force free African American men and women into labor contracts with white people. If an African American person was to not sign a liver contract they would be either fined and imprisoned, or forced to do unpaid labor. These black codes were a essentially a new form of slavery, but this form of slavery was legal. One of the earliest states to pass black codes was Mississippi.

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Mississippi law required that African Americans were to have a labor contract each year and if they were to leave before the contract was up they would either be arrested, or they had to give up the money that they earned. Another state to pass black codes was South Carolina. South Carolina’s laws did not allow African American people to hold jobs other than servants or farmers. They could only hold these types of jobs and were required to pay annual taxes anywhere from $10 to $100. Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which required all southern states to ratify the 14th amendment, which stated that all people were entitled to equal protection under the law, which included former slaves and African American people. And, in the 1870s, the 15th amendment was passed, which allowed all citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, color or whether they were slave. Shortly after the 15th amendment was passed, the Ku Klux Klan was started and was used to invoke fear and all African American people so that they could not exercise these rights.

After the abolishment of slavery, African American people were still slaves. The southern states made laws to ensure that African American people would always stay oppressed. Laws like Jim Crow and the black codes made sure that African American people still had a slave-like mentality. Though they might have physically been free, mentally, and emotionally they were not. Those laws were one of the main causes of it. Those laws were put into place to make sure that African American people would succumb to whatever things that the white people wanted them to. The south still had control over the African American people and how they live their lives, because of legislations.

My research has focused on the rates of incarceration among African American men, beginning during Reconstruction, after the Civil War, up to the present day. The rates of incarceration among African American men, is growing daily. The American judicial system is a racially-driven force within our country that profits off the enslavement of African American men.

In Michael Tonry’s Why Are U.S. Incarceration Rates So High? Tonry outlines how American prisons have the most inmates-to-residents ratio versus other western democracies. In America, there are 668 inmates to every 100,000 residents, which is almost 6 to 12 times the number of inmates that are in prisons like Sweden, who only have one inmate to every 2,000 residents. The United States is one of the only western countries that still has the death penalty and uses it. The United States is also one of the only countries that has a three strikes rule. When someone commits three crimes whether or not they are severe, the state sentences using minimum state sentencing laws. The high incarceration rate in America can help us understand why so many African American men are in prison.

In Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration, by Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, through research it is shown that 9% of Americans will go to prison in their lifetime. Among the 9%, 28.5% of African Americans will be sentenced to prison and 4.4% of white men will go to prison in their lifetime. Incarceration is closely related to low income, family instability, unemployment, and restrictions on social and political rights. All these issue all seem to be related to African American men. The rate for imprisonment among African American non-college students grew 18% from the year 1979 to the year 1999. One in eight African American men will go to prison in their lifetime. Though the number of African American men is small in the population, they make up a large majority of the population in the American prison system.

In Marked Race, Crime, and Finding Working in An Era of Mass Incarceration, by Devah Pager, about one-third of all African American men will go to prison in their lifetime. It is now seen as a transition from childhood to adulthood. The problem is so severe that it is now seen as a part of life in the African American community. African American men are more likely to go to prison than serve in the military or go to college. Families in the African American community are put in a disposition because they have to deal with the cycle of the men going to prison, because it is a never-ending cycle. The men go to prison and are released, and then find a way back into prison. The American judicial system is helping prove that racial stereotypes are true by sentencing many African American men to prison.

In Significance of the Racial Factor in the Length of Prison Sentences, by Henry Allen Bullock, it shows that even in the early 1960s African American men received longer prison sentences for certain crimes when compared to their white counterparts and that they were sentenced to prison more than whites. With research that was conducted in Eastern Texas, white men’s prison sentences were longer for rape and burglary but were shorter for murder. When all the prison sentences were averaged out, African American and white men were 50/50 for the amount of long prison sentences.

As far back as 1865 with the addition of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through the 1960s with civil rights for African Americans and others, it still seems that towards the end of the 20th century and now into the 21st century racial inequality, especially as it relates to incarceration, still exists. During the Obama administration, there was a campaign to reform some of the criminal justice policies that were designed to suppress and promote incarceration that negatively affected African Americans, as well as Hispanic Americans. Through the U.S. Justice Department under the management of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch at the time, several civil rights and social justice policies were enacted. Some of this included leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, phasing out privatization of prisons for federal inmates, and avoiding the triggering of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent crimes and or drug offenses; all in an effort to reduce the incidence of mass incarceration.

After Donald Trump took over the presidency and with the appointment of Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions, it was the mission of AG Sessions along with President Trump to roll back the reforms that President Obama had enacted. One of the rollbacks or attempted rollbacks was keeping the functioning of the prison system in this country in the hands of private businesses. “While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.” (Masood)

And, so the struggle for social justice and reduction in incarceration of African Americans in unproportionate numbers continues.

An Alternative Policy is the “Reverse Mass Incarceration act” (Brennan Center for Justice), which states that it would provide funds to states to reduce imprisonment and crime together. Washington, one of our previous presidents’ encouraged states to incarcerate, instead it can now support them to minimize incarceration while also keeping the crime rate down. It can promote state reform efforts to reduce and hopefully eliminate prison populations. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this policy has four sections; a new federal grant program of $20 billion over 10 years in incentive funds to states. A statute that states who successfully reduce their prison population by at least 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in crime will be guaranteed funds. A clear methodology based on population size and other factors to determine how much money states receive. According to the Washington Post, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, and also has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Mass incarceration is not essential to keeping down the rate of crime and is also inefficient at it. The criminal justice system costs taxpayers $260 billion a year. It is believed that incarceration contributes about 20 % of the American poverty rate. To reverse course, the federal government can apply a similar approach. The idea is that it can be termed a “Reverse Crime Bill,” or the “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.” It would provide funds to states to reduce imprisonment and crime altogether. This policy can possibly be more effective, because it focuses on how we can obliterate mass incarceration the same way we promoted states to increase it in the past.

My research or focus on why the incarceration rates for African American males is so high when compared to other races in America. Black codes and Jim Crow laws started the avalanche effect for African American men going to jail or prison. Why are the rates for African American men so high? What caused African American men to go to prison more than any other race? I plan to answer these questions through my research.

My method of research will be through analyzing primary and secondary sources. My research will be divided into two topics: Background and how the high prison rates affect the African American community.

The first section of my research will look at the background of African American men and the prison system. I will also discuss the roles that Jim Crow laws and black codes head on the imprisonment of African Americans. This first section is to highlight the biases of the judicial system since the freedom of slaves back in 1865.

The second section of my research will look at how high prison rates affect the African American community. I will discuss how the high incarceration rates affect the family dynamics in African American households. This last section is to show that the African American men have a strong role and influence in the African American community.

Today, the issue of mass incarceration continues to be a topic of discussion among United States citizens and within politics. When Hillary Clinton, the wife of former President Bill Clinton was running for presidency in the election against Donald Trump, she was asked about her support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Being that her husband was the individual who helped to pass this act, the question was raised amongst the individuals in the political system of whether or not she was still loyal to the bill as she was before. When asked in the presidential debate if she regrets her advocacy for the crime bill, she responding saying “I’m sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives (Hillary Clinton, CNN).” This was a statement that she made in hopes of having a positive response from the media but instead it left a lot of people feeling angry. It was unsettling and confusing to citizens who recalled Hillary Clinton in 1996 referring to black kids as “superpredators.” Superpredators is a racist term “that was specifically deployed to stereotype and target black children in the 1990s with the intention of locking them up to protect terrified white people from bad black boys (The root).” It seemed to be a statement only made because she wanted to win her presidency. This is a prime example of how politics has a major influence on the things that people believe.

Mass Incarceration is a major issue that began in the mid 1990s and has continued to have a major impact in today’s society. It is clear that the the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 left a lasting impact on the prison system and the communities of African Americans and Hispanics across the United States.

Communities are suffering due to the injustices and complacencies of the system. Family members being incarcerated for long periods of time for petty crime, disadvantages their families and causes damage to the structure of how families operate. Residents of neighborhoods with high incarceration rates endure disproportionate stress due to the disrupted and dysfunctional social and family networks. According to the research found, there are mental-health outcomes of people who live in areas from which the incarcerated are heavily drawn and produced. This shows that mass incarceration not only affects families, but communities as a whole. These effects have proven to be long term being that since the passing and enactment of this bill, incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics has continued to increase. Statistics were not always as high as they are now and it is shown that they did not begin to skyrocket until this bill by Bill Clinton was put into effect. With the Racial bias, disparities, collateral damage, and lasting effects that were created and maintained by this bill, the United States has contributed to sustaining a nation that is unjust, racist, and insufficient. One must ask, is America the land of the free or is it simply a nation dedicated to the success of the “superior race” and the decline or all minorities?


  1. Tonry, M. (1999). Why Are U.S. Incarceration Rates So High? Crime & Delinquency,45(4), 419-437. doi:10.1177/0011128799045004001
  2. Pettit, B., & Western, B. (2004). Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration. American Sociological Review,69(2), 151-169. doi:10.1177/000312240406900201
  3. Pager, D. (2007). Marked. doi:10.7208/Chicago/9780226644851.001.0001
  4. Bullock, H. A. (1961). Significance of the Racial Factor in the Length of Prison Sentences. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science,52(4), 411. doi:10.2307/1141266
  5. Masood, F. (December 30, 2017 5:55 AM). How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled
  6. Back Obama-era Policies. VOA Website.
  7. Savali, Kirsten West. “For the Record: ‘Superpredators’ Is Absolutely a Racist Term.” The Root,, 13 Nov. 2017,
  8. Wagner, Anne Gearan John. “Clinton Regrets 1996 Super-Predators Comment.” The Washington Post, 26 Feb. 2016,

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African American Men and Mass Incarceration in America. (2022, Sep 14). Retrieved from

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