Policy Review: Mass Incarceration

Muslim Taseer's searing account of America's prison problem

Muslim Taseer
13th June 2020
Image: Good Free Photos, NASA, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia
6 December 1865. The 13th Amendment is ratified within the US constitution. Slavery is deemed a violation of the constitution, and abolished. Except there're a few nitpicks. The main bulk of the amendment reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States". What's that? "Except as a punishment for a crime"? Are we sure about that one?

Fast-forward about 150 years. Close to one percent of the US population is in prison. Black people are 40% of the prison population while being only 13% of the actual population. Something is very, very wrong. So how did we get here?

To even begin to answer that question, you would have to go so far back and explain so much, you wouldn't be able to fit it into one article. The socioeconomic consequences of rampant capitalism have ravaged the scene beyond recognition. Jim Crow, redlining, COINTELPRO, Reaganomics, CIA crack, police brutality, no amount of reasons would fully encapsulate just how badly things have gone wrong. We could, however, start with one of the most recent and currently relevant thorns: the 1994 "Tough on Crime" Bill.

Part of the problem began under Reagan, with private prisons

Why would a government want its own people locked up? To answer that question, we have to go back to 1984, when Ronald Reagan is president. CoreCivic, a private corporation, is given a government contract to build and run a prison. It is the first "private prison". The government pays a company to handle a few of its prisoners. The company pockets this money, builds the cheapest, lowest quality prison possible, and then puts the prisoners to work doing forced labour. This earns the company money by exploiting workers for surplus value: classic capitalism. It's also slavery, as protected under the 13th Amendment. They then decide they want more prisoners, for more money. They begin to lobby.

The federal government is not innocent in all of this

The federal government is not innocent of this either, who figured out the fiduciary benefits of legal slavery all the way back in 1934. That's the year they set up Federal Prison Industries, which earned the government a cool few billion here and there. They were not shy of using legislative power to create revenue either, as seen in the criminalization of marijuana.

By the mid-1990s, mass incarceration was destroying lives

1994. The prison system has become an industry. It is profitable to lock up people with harsher and harsher sentences for smaller and smaller crimes. Joe Biden writes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It passes into law under President Bill Clinton. Three strikes, mandatory life sentences, 100 000 more police officers, and 10 billion in funding for prisons. It's clear that Uncle Sam wants more convicts to exploit. It compounds the effects of the countless previous hard-on-crime bills like Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and further increases the prison population. By this time, mass incarceration was in full swing, and it was destroying lives. Thomas Frank points out the shocking juxtaposition of Biden's bill with the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act, which relaxed federal banking laws. Signed mere weeks after the crime bill, it was the first of many financial industry deregulations under Clinton.

The black community disproportionately suffered

It goes without saying that the brunt of the crime bill was faced by the black community, another addition to the long list of ways the US government has failed its black population. The bill imposed mandatory life sentences for individuals with three or more felony convictions, no matter the severity, under the "three strikes" law. As the cycle of criminal activity in low-income, mainly POC areas continued, this meant that people facing these life-sentences were also mainly POC. As of 2016, 79% of people serving life sentences were POC. The bill's harsh penalties for youth offenders didn't help either: it allowed 13-year old juveniles to be charged as adults, strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline. As a result, two-thirds of children sentenced to life imprisonment are black. Reports of the bill's success are also easily exaggerated: the purported "decrease in violent crime" had begun before it was enacted.

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even begun to pull the knife out, much less try and heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.


Mass incarceration gets 0 policy points out of a possible 10, due to being a racist, exploitative system that is inherently unjust.

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