What is it that you think of when you think of mass incarceration? Does the word “mass” clue you in? Mass incarceration, at other times, called the prison boom, hyper-incarceration, or mass imprisonment refers to a unique strategy used in the United States to disproportionately incarcerate a massive population in federal, state, and local prisons using unjust or otherwise unlawful practice. We’ve chosen to tackle this subject because the U.S. has a very high rate of historic incarceration compared to the rest of the world (López, I.
, 2010). So much so, that we’re no longer imprisoning the individual, but whole social groups. With that said, is mass incarceration a targeted strategy to create social inequality among people of color? Now, that’s the heavy question.
In the following pages, we will demonstrate that we do indeed believe that a mass incarceration is a tool to racially steer inequality towards people of color. Through conflict theory and the hierarchy of social stratification, we will demonstrate how those in power keep minorities from threatening their power by utilizing institutional racism.
Conflict theory, fathered by Karl Marx, is a macro-analysis of how societies operate within differences of power and are driven by competition for limited resources. In social stratification, society ranks groups of people in a hierarchy. May they be grouped by wealth, religion, or race, these groups share different statuses in power. Given the nature of social conflict and stratification amongst society, it would be only logical to believe that mass incarceration is one of the many tools used to perpetuate social inequality by means of sedimentation of racial inequality in social institutions.
Despite social functionalists believing mass incarceration not only has a place in society but that it’s perhaps needed to deter crime in a functional society, we believe that mass incarceration has a much more negative impact on people of color. We believe this is because the system sets them up to fail reintegration into society. It weakens economically challenged families and keeps them in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage by controlling almost every aspect of their lives.
This all begins with President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. In 1968, Nixon insisted that the solution to crime was not by the increase of government funds for dealing with poverty, but with more criminal convictions (López, I., 2010). The war on drugs rages on even in today’s presidency with more people of color in mass incarnation than were ever enslaved a decade before the civil war in 1850. The surge in the ever-expanding prison population was directly caused by the war on drugs by targeting non-violent offenders and has resulted in a correctional system population so vast that it is not seen in any other part of the world. (Marable, M. 2008).
At around the same time, there was a social backlash towards the civil rights movement as communities of color went through a collapse in the economy. People who defended segregation began to view those of color who were involved with non-violent protests and civil disobedience as engaging in threatening behavior. As places of employment shut down and the jobs of the unemployed went overseas, globalization began to cause a depression within colored communities and crime started to rise. Political strategists found using promises aimed at working-class Caucasians that Republicans would get tough on crime successful in defecting from the Democratic New Deal coalition. By the 1970s, jobs vanished in colored communities and hundreds of thousands of colored people found themselves jobless (López, I., 2010).
As crime got worse, this backlash towards the civil rights movement segued into a demand for incarceration, and Nixon’s war on drugs began. This continued on into the Ronald Reagan presidency as Reagan kept to his campaign promise to get tough on what the media defined as criminals and declared a drug war. After his declaration of war, funds for law enforcement immediately began to soar. By the time 1997 came around one-third of all colored men were unemployed when sent to prison, and the average income of those employed was about 900 dollars a month. This militarization of criminal justice was used as the management and containment of new rising inequality and surplus populations (López, I., 2010).
Before Reagan declared war on drugs, it was already dwindling. The war on drugs had much less to do with drugs and more to do with politics, including racial and social conflict. In order to get Congress to spend millions of more dollars to waging this drug war, the Reagan administration utilized a public media campaign to point the finger at a crack epidemic in economically disadvantaged inner-city communities. Congress began to appoint mandatory sentences for minor drug-related offenses. Sometimes these sentences were worse than what murderers received. When Democrats tried to prove they could be even tougher on the war on drugs than Republicans, new laws came about that made minor-offense criminals a permanent underclass in the social hierarchy. For example, those who may have had a minor offense were now denied financial aid for college, public housing, and even food stamps. This led to a penal system that left millions of people of color from disadvantaged communities perpetually locked up in an unfair cycle that set them up for failure.
In conflict theory, the creation of social categories and the misallocation of resources between groupings of racial inequality directly leads to racially driven social stratification. This stratification angle on the war on crime links this topic of mass incarceration to how and why racism is used as a means of manipulating special interests by those who hold power. Racial stratification involves conflicts over status, over the cultural meanings tied to racial categories. The war on crime has partly been a cultural battle over full and equal social citizenship (López, I., 2010).
In “Cellblocks or Classrooms? “, The Justice Policy Institute examined state spending on
higher education and corrections over a fifteen-year period between 1985 to 2000 by analyzing the National Association of State Budget Officers’ annual State Expenditure Report. The report found that men of color are being sent to prisons at a faster rate than they are enrolling in college There are an estimated 791,000 men of color in prisons compared to about 603,000 enrolled in higher education. The study concluded that prison funding sharply outpaced increases in funding for higher education, and the explosion in black male mass incarceration outpaced the growth in black male college attendance. (Marbley, A., & Ferguson, R.2005).
This fits in with this paper’s assumption that mass incarceration is a tool to control inequality towards people of color. By controlling the institutions of the penal system and education through the allocation of funding, those with higher political sway on the social hierarchy are able to manipulate social stratification by limiting education to those in a disadvantaged class. Doing so keeps the status quo of the current social conflict. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education states spent 21 percent more on higher education compared to 127 percent in the corrections department (Marable, M. 2008).
In a 2002 study, Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D., and David J. Levin, Ph.D. used statistics from the U.S. Justice Department to analyze recidivism rates of prisoners. Recidivism is basically a prisoner’s tendency to re-offend. It found that the majority of inmates will re-offend and return to prison 3 to 5 years from their release. Of those, 79 percent of them were men of color. The study concluded that increasing incarceration and recidivism rates should be of more a vital interest to our society since the recidivism rates are very high within an institution whose main purpose is to deter crime. (Marbley, A., & Ferguson, R.2005).
Again, mass incarceration manipulates the inequality of people of color. The study shows that it sets up 79% of black men to re-offend. The current institution is designed to send people back into the system. It takes people’s rights away by denying them access to financial help. Convicted criminals are denied housing and food assistance. The only way to survive is by recommitting the crime and succumbing to secondary deviance. This gives off the impression that society is going to send you back to prison whether you follow the rules or don’t. Who has the power to change that? Again, the people at the top of the social hierarchy. By keeping people perpetually in prison through the denial of the essentials to survival, it keeps the status quo in a stale position. Ex-convicts cannot move up the social latter and pose no threat to the privileged.
In 1998, a study by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch analyzed the impact of mass incarceration on the civic life of people of color. They found that 1.4 million black Americans lost their right to vote as a result of a felony conviction. The geographical concentration of mass incarceration translates into the denial of voting rights of entire communities. This substantially affects the voting power of black U.S. citizens. (Roberts, D. (2004).
Much like our last study, our assumptions on social conflict and social stratification are correctly evident. By keeping people perpetually in prison with the way the current system is set up, the social fabric begins to erode within communities. When a community reaches a boiling point with mass incarceration, it begins to decay and crime rates rise. These communities can no longer remain healthy when incarceration becomes a problem rather than a solution.
So, how does sociology help us understand the world we live in within the terms of mass incarceration? We can see that social conflict has to lead to a socially stratified society where those at the top of the pyramid manipulate politics for profit through social population control of those at the bottom. Those at the top use those on the bottom to make money. Prisons currently make two billion dollars in revenue on a yearly basis, and prisoners generate another seven billion through the exploitation of unpaid labor. The construction of prisons is another lucrative business. Even more so than the unpaid prisoner labor, it has had has become a bountiful source of profit in the last couple of decades. (López, I., 2010).
Through social stratification, mass incarceration has created the disenfranchisement of people of color. Laws prevent ex-convicts the basic rights of U.S. citizens such as voting. Within colored communities, manipulating equal voting power has extensively been used for social reconstruction and another tool for racial and social-class supremacy.
The full impact of using race within social stratification in mass incarceration has brought about a society that is in denial about the importance of eradicating racism. The massive
incarceration of huge segments of black communities has veiled the broad devastation still present within society. At the beginning of our new century, almost half of all men of color without a formal education were incarcerated (López, I., 2010). This gives sociologists much to consider. Using race in social stratification brings attention that mass incarceration is used as a form of population control by those in power in order to exploit the allocation of resources. Even in today’s society, in the age of Trump, race continues to be used within a system of exploitation. The manipulation of educational institutions directly affects a person’s path in their future social hierarchy and the system comes off as having direct control of exploited populations. The increase in black incarceration within the past few decades is a direct result of the manipulation of such institutions by those in power as a tool for keeping uneducated classes in their place by segregating entire communities from affecting their wealth and politics.
Sociologists can see that mass incarceration uses social stratification as a means to segregate people of color from mainstream white society. As a result of social stratification, mass incarceration not only removes black U.S. citizens as competition in a tightly competitive labor industry but also exploits them through their unpaid work within prison networks. Through sociological imagination, we can also see that capitalism within mass incarceration can be viewed as a modern take on race-driven labor exploitation. This is very similar to the plantation-based slave economy that took place within the development of the U.S. economy (Smith, E., & Hattery, A. 2008).
Sociology shows us that that the system of mass incarceration is also largely structured by social class. Statistics show us that a large majority of prisoners were immediately unemployed prior to their conviction and incarceration. Those who were employed were earning such small wages that it placed them within the poor social class. Sociologists can easily see that those on the higher end of the social class manipulate and control the labor industry through modern veiled racism by removing or using an exploitable class and extracting free labor from them in our modern era. (Smith, E., & Hattery, A. 2008).
Through conflict within social stratification, sociologists can observe and examine that those with power may use institutions such as education to diminish populations aware to how the prison institution exploits free labor and perpetuates a national compulsion to incarcerate and criminalize young people of color within a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ (Marable, M. 2008). This same national compulsion damages communities by normalizing the view that young people have a prison to look forward to as they grow up in poor communities. This point of view damages the prospects for change that their communities may ever evolve into better ones. It makes successful economies almost impossible to form. It creates a sense of young people growing up in these poor communities will directly lead to prison in their future and that is just predestined (Wacquant, L.,2010).
The basic takeaway of what sociology can tell us about social stratification isn’t that hard to grasp. The disparities that damage our society are all brought about by the social conflict that arises from prejudice and discrimination. Sociological imagination gives us the ability to examine things with a fresh new pair of eyes and examine them from an entirely new perspective. At the end of the day, racism is a fact and not an opinion. Mainstream society dances around speaking plainly about this fact, but sociological imagination bridges a connection between different personal experiences and gives us a bigger social picture to observe as a powerful framework to work with to bring about change.