U.S. Prison system, racial and social injustice

This was originally a paper I wrote for a history course back in 2011, I have edited a few parts and shortened it drastically, while adding my own commentary.

My school’s book fair was based on banned books by the Tuscon, AZ school district. I became very inspired by Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Although I didn’t use much from Alexander’s book and have recently done more critical analysis of the text, this paper echoes her message; The criminal justice system is corruptible and has relegated a large group of African-Americans and low-income Americans to a lower caste. The consequences of being convicted of a crime (even drug possession for personal use, or writing bad checks) can permanently destroy a persons record and allow for legal discrimination, similar to the jim crow laws after reconstruction.


Race has been used to justify countless acts of imprisonment, oppression, and disenfranchisement in the United States, from the first settlers until modern society. With improvements of social and biological sciences, as well as critical revision of history, we now have the evidence that ‘race’ is socially constructed. The human brain is practically identical among our species, and we share most of the same DNA. When using moral and ethical judgment, as well as biological knowledge, it seems intuitive that all people should be equal. Equal in the eyes of the law, nature, and some would contend, God. Social races are almost impossible to defend– we have no way of completely distinguishing them. Culture is a more appropriate description for a people, but it is undeniable that race has been the motive for age-old systems of oppression.

The United States has struggled with these issues tragically, with dehumanizing and destructive outcomes such as slavery. Slavery was a system of forced labor based on skin color, and there were even laws characterizing Blacks as being those with “one drop of negro blood” even though humans pass on half of their genetic material to the next generation. “One drop” of a type of blood is literally impossible, and it just shows to what lengths the early governments and ruling classes of the United States were willing to go to in order to be legally racist and discriminative. Even the term African-American implies that a group is only half-American. Although this blatant racism is hard to imagine in modern society, there is a system that some would argue is similar to slavery—the prison system, or what has been labeled the Prison Industrial Complex. It is referred to as the Prison Industrial Complex because its production of goods and labor force compare with that of the Military Industrial Complex.

The prison system is used to reform or rehabilitate convicted criminals and therefore it is widely accepted. It doles out punishment through forced labor, mandatory sentencing, and the stripping of individual rights; however, research has proven that the incarceration system is not effective in rehabilitating criminals, lowering crime rates, or protecting the public. Not only does it lock up and disenfranchise predominately people of lower socioeconomic class, that cannot afford representation, but also historians and scholars have argued that the legal system in place today is merely a continuation of the racially motivated institutions and laws such as slavery, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow.

The U.S. prison system is rife with social and racial injustices, similar to those of the South, both before and after the Civil War. Jim Crow laws in the South after the war ensured that voting, housing rights, and education were not accessible to Blacks. Even with the passage of the 13th amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (Davis 28). Former slaves were punished with forced labor, sometimes on the very same plantations that had been utilized for slavery. Similarly, the Black Codes, which controlled and criminalized every aspect of Black life, were enacted in Texas after the Civil War. These laws reinforced the inferior position that Blacks held in this country and hindered them from becoming free of the legal system, let alone successful members of society. The Codes marginalized Blacks by regulating labor and criminalizing petty offenses.

Today’s legal system criminalizes a multitude of actions such as drug use, theft, and prostitution. Crime is committed the same among races, however law enforcement targets overwhelmingly non-white potential criminals. After being convicted, there is little opportunity to access voting, housing rights, and education. Further, once an inmate is labeled a felon and becomes institutionalized, the chances of them obtaining an education that would lead to a good job statistically improbable. The association of Blacks with crime is a powerful conviction still seen today, and is by no means accidental. Just watch the news to see what groups are being portrayed as the pillars of crime and poverty. Although there are no Jim Crow laws today, the legal system continues to perpetuate a racially and socioeconomically divided society. Minority and low-income individuals are arrested, convicted and imprisoned more often than Caucasians, or those of higher economic standing. The struggles presented to an individual with a felony conviction are similar to those of Blacks in the Jim Crow era. The 13th amendment was also not the first or last piece of legislature to seem progressive at face value, yet contain wording that excluded or criminalized certain groups. While abolishing slavery, it also had the capacity to lay the framework for a new structure of slavery. Today, many states proscribe voting and other constitutional rights to people who have been convicted of a felony. This is one of the worst forms of disenfranchisement, and the public often does not question the arbitrary power of the legal system to deny constitutional rights.

Michelle Alexander, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has argued that the legal system put in place today is actually a new form of the Jim Crow laws. The disproportionate number of Blacks imprisoned is so similar to slavery, to put it into perspective; “More Blacks men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.” The ‘Justice’ system that incarcerates and disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of Blacks has created a new under caste by permanently denying them the right to vote, serve on juries, as well as gain access to housing opportunities and education. This is not just for a murder, rape, or any other violent crime conviction; but for marijuana possession as well. Many states today have legalized the drug, which has been proven to be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, yet many citizens spend years in and out of the prison system for possession. And these citizens are mostly Blacks, despite the fact that people of all races and classes use the drug. As for drug use, all genders, age groups, and social races engage in it. There is no conclusive study that shows Blacks or Latinos use more drugs than Whites. There is a higher chance of being exposed to petty crime and drug use within inner cities and impoverished neighborhoods, but it’s due mostly to lack of adequate housing, education, and family structure.


The fact that law enforcement focuses on arresting and convicting predominantly Blacks is indicative of the fact that there is a method of oppressive, authoritarian, control being used by the state. That method is the justice system as we know it, violating personal freedoms in an incredibly unjust (and unconstitutional) way.There is a stigma that comes with having been imprisoned or under correctional control. Aside from being discredited in society for jobs, parolees wave many of their constitutional rights. The equal protection clause in the 14th amendment and the search and seizure clause in the 4th amendment have been violated especially when targeting minority groups. Law enforcement does not stop, search, and raid affluent White communities the same as it does inner cities. Poorer, inner city communities are undoubtedly targeted more aggressively– with SWAT teams armed to the teeth, representing a sort of totalitarian military police state.

Moreover, after being convicted and sentenced, it is very difficult to escape the lifestyle and culture of the “revolving door” that is the prison system. That revolving door serves as a sort of school for criminals, and actually worsens their situationIn the U.S. young minorities have a better chance of ending up incarcerated at some point in their lives than in a classroom. The federal and state tax dollars used to house an inmate for a year exceed that of tuition for a year at most universities (Davis 11). Investing in the young people of this nation should be a top priority; we need to provide an education and an alternative to violence, drug addiction, and crime. Prisons make Americans feel safe, though, and so it is constantly swept under the rug—the percentage of our youth that are being systematically destroyed, the amount of money used to do it, and the unquestionable fact that minorities are targeted. The unequal sentencing for convictions of specific groups or classes of people today is downright obvious. African-American and Latino males are the most imprisoned portions of the population.

Approximately 10 percent of Black males between the ages of 25 and 29 in a community are incarcerated. The institution has not only transformed into a method of controlling a population with racially driven motives, but also become a statistically more likely place for African-Americans to end up than a university. With the increasing number of imprisoned African-Americans, prison has become “a more important institution for integrating them as subjects into adult roles than higher education, the military, or marriage” (Simon 472). This is incredibly depressing. Because imprisonment is so widespread among poor and minority culture, it has become a sort of “rite of passage” that earns credibility, respect, and in some instances initiation to a group. For some, prison has become the university, the job, the home, and the place of dying. These statistics show that these groups are especially subject to a heavy hand on the scales of justice.

The punishment industry has become another avenue for controlling and regulating behavior of people who were seen to have committed a crime. People of low socioeconomic background are grossly overrepresented in the prison, parole, and probation systems. It seems as though the justice system has too often not lived up to its name, because only those who can afford legal representation have a chance at proving their case. In many cases the legal system used to cater to the political and social interests of the upper class. Gideon v. Wainwright is a landmark Supreme Court case that had a significant impact on the legal system. After arrested and wrongfully convicted of burglary, Clarence Gideon was unable to provide legal counsel for himself. Because it was not a federal case, assistance of counsel for defense under the Sixth Amendment was not provided. From his jail cell, Gideon challenged this and the case was moved to the Supreme Court. The court found that appointment of counsel was “a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial”(Cornell Law) and that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the requirement of legal defense. This case is an example of how the majority of prisoners incarcerated do not have proper legal counsel, and many are wrongly convicted. If more money were used to provide legal counsel to individuals facing criminal charges instead of on maintaining jails and prisons, there would certainly be a lower prison population.

The levels of government spending on the rapidly proliferating prison system are almost incomprehensible—high tech security systems, employing correctional officers, and funding the inmates’ basic needs, are a huge cost. Citizens’ tax dollars are used to fund incarceration facilities. There has long been a debate in this country relating to the percentage of tax dollars that should go to programs like Temporary Aid for Needy Families and so-called entitlement programs. Some social and political groups are absolutely opposed to cash aid, welfare, and even federal student financial aid. The welfare recipients, or “takers” that republicans and Tea Party activists often speak about hardly take a portion of what is spent on the prison system. On the contrary, prisons are a source of profit. Many corporations rely on prison labor and the system is used to produce goods that the American public consumes, after we have already paid for the labor to produce them—giving a different, twisted meaning to “making crime pay.”

This is not the only way that private companies are making money from the prison system. Some examples of the beneficiaries of this exploitative system are the Correctional Corporations of America and Capital Corrections Resources, Inc. With privatization, governments pay companies a fee for each inmate. That gives an incentive to fill up cells of inmates, in turn giving incentive to create and enforce laws to incriminate more citizens. In Texas, there are 34 privately owned, government run prisons generating about $80 million for Texas. Inmates are used for labor in various departments of the government, including fire department and military gear manufacturing. This is what the term Prison Industrial Complex implies. The “chain gang” is sadly alive and well today, and it seems indentured servitude or slavery has merely changed its name. Another huge injustice is the large portion of people serving time for mainly non-violent crimes.

The “drug war” has cost trillions of dollars; yet street narcotics are more available and pure than ever (Jarecki). The drug problem American citizens face today is overwhelming and too often treated with jail time. Anyone with knowledge of the system knows that prison is like a school for criminals, and drugs are widely accepted, used, and sold within the prison– even by prison guards. This might be a harsh reality to face, but little action has been taken to actually address the problem and identify its true causes. Using prison as an indefinite punishment cannot be a logical solution. Furthermore, how much power should a government have? Enough to incarcerate marijuana users, permanently brand individuals as felons, or use capital punishment? And whose right is it to essentially force prisoners to work?


Philosophical arguments aside, there are alternatives to incarceration including behavior modification and social model drug rehabilitation programs. Moreover, education is the cornerstone of a productive life, especially for younger people. Drug abuse has been criminalized when it should be treated as a public health problem. Convicting young people with felony drug offenses does not reform them; it sucks them into a system of incarceration and legal requirements that are arduous to escape. The prison system is not a practical solution to many crimes, and it has created a power dynamic that is most certainly destructive because of the social roles of the prisoner and correctional officer.

Philip Zimbardo, psychology professor and creator of the Stanford prison experiment, has done extensive research on prison, punishment, and power. Zimbardo found that when placed in the setting, not only will prisoners become hostile and aggressive in harsh environments, but also prison guards may become severely abusive when in a place of power. The Stanford Prison Experiment was a process in which 24 ordinary males of normal cognitive and emotional functioning drastically changed their behavior when assigned to be inmates or prison guards. The ones assigned to be prison guards displayed brutal, abusive behaviors in the psychological experiment. Within 24 hours, guards invented mentally and emotionally abusive rules to humiliate the prisoners. If this happened within 24 hours, one can imagine how abusive and oppressive the incarceration system is over a long period of time. Imagine being locked in the Security Housing Unit for a decade. The students in the Stanford Prison experiment assigned to be prisoners displayed real fear and terror, and believed they were truly imprisoned. Any prisoner will attest to the feelings of fear, helplessness, deprivation, and anger that are experienced surrounding incarceration.

This dynamic is not only detrimental to the prisoner, but to the system as well and it is simply not acceptable for people to live in that way. Those feelings are often what initially caused the accused to act outside of the social norm by breaking laws. The prison system will not function as a reformation tool; it will only be destructive if there is so much power given to the correctional officers, warden, and so on.

No one would deny that this country has been driven by race when creating laws and exacting punishment. Racism has systematically shaped society as a whole. Immediately after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the Black Codes were developed to reprimand actions like “vagrancy” or “drunkenness” only when done by Blacks. Following the Codes were the Jim Crow laws, which forced segregation with separate drinking fountains, separate schools, and no inkling as to what it is to be an American.

Imagine living with that reproach, and how shameful and painful that would be. Even the Supreme Court ruled that facilities could be “separate but equal” in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case (Which was later overturned by Brown vs. Board). Even with the Brown case, banning de jour segregation, had no way of enforcing de facto integration. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s that (some) voting rights were restored to Black Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination, at least in a legal sense, but in reality some groups are still discriminated against when it comes to jobs, education, and housing.

Most recently, a trial was held in New York City challenging the constitutionality of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy, concluding that they unfairly target people of Black and Latino heritage. *update: Stop and Frisk deemed unconstitutional* Racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is entrenched in our government and society. The worst discrimination seems to still be in the government and legal system; after all, it has been enforced that way since the constitution. Even though great progress has been made, there is no accounting for the gross overrepresentation of minority groups in the punishment system. It is almost worse that people at every level of government and law enforcement part take it in this discrimination in such a covert manner, and deny altogether any racial prejudice.

The punishment industry is clearly a way to continue the malevolent systems of oppression which society seems to attribute to the shameful chapters of the past. These injustices are done in such a surreptitious manner that much of the population does not see it as a racially driven form of oppression. Much of the population would never consider releasing millions of prisoners, or abolishing the prison system altogether. The general American public would not necessarily feel safe with convicted criminals living freely as they do.

I have to point out, this is also how the majority of Americans felt about Blacks in the 1800s and throughout the Jim Crow era. The criminalization of millions of law-breakers has instilled this horrible fear into society, not taking into account the fact that we are all human beings and possibly it is the gargantuan set of arbitrary rules that we should be fearful of. A a person who has committed a non-violent crime such as violating traffic laws or drug use shouldn’t have to live with a permanent stain on his or her record, regardless of race.

It may seem presumptuous to claim that the legal system causes similar detriment to criminals that slavery and Jim Crow did to Blacks, or that the prison system is a new form of slavery. However, taking into account the history of the United States, it is not completely unfounded. The United States legal system locks up more prisoners than any other country per capita, and increasingly more Black and Latino individuals. If this is the “land of the free,” it certainly doesn’t seem that way with over 2 million criminals incarcerated, making up almost 25% of the worlds population. As a society we need to be weary of trusting the objectivity of our government, and the methods of implementation used by law enforcement. If this type of racial and social injustice continues to drive the nation apart, we may be living in a modern day segregation era based on economics, politics, and race.


Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

McDermott, Rose. “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – By Philip Zimbardo.” Political Psychology 28.5 (2007): 644-646. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Simon, Jonathan. “Rise Of The Carceral State.” Social Research 74.2 (2007): 471-508. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 13 Apr. 2013

Linda Lobao, et al. “The Prison Industry: Carceral Expansion And Employment In U.S. Counties, 1969–1994.” Social Science Quarterly (Blackwell Publishing Limited) 85.1 (2004): 37-57. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

Supreme Court Of The United States. “Gideon v. Wainwright” 327 U.S. 335. law.cornell.edu. Web.


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November 2, 2013 · 6:09 pm

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