Per request of some followers, this is the research paper I wrote for my English class at college regarding the Epidemic of Mass Incarceration in the U.S.A
When Abraham Lincoln submitted the 13th Amendment to state legislation, slavery officially became an unlawful practice; but there was an exception in the amendment. The 13th amendment states that “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (U.S. Constitution). In the center of the amendment lies a loophole: “except as a punishment for crime”. This is the driving force of what is now known as mass incarceration which has direct historical ties to slavery and the racially discriminatory grounds slavery was built on. The war on drugs, in combination with for profit prisons, have been the primary fuel for the now epidemic of mass incarceration in the “Land of the Free”.
Mass incarceration “is defined by comparatively…extreme rates of imprisonment…[especially] by the concentration of imprisonment among young, African American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage” (Wildeman). As of 2013, the United States housed 22% of the world’s prison population while only making up roughly 4.4% of the world (Walmsley 3). This statistic alone is troubling; however, it does not give a full picture of the entire problem. Mass incarceration historically disproportionally affects young black men. Though they only make up 6% of the population, in 2008 they made up 40% of the prison population and 28% of the arrests (Warde). Reasons for this gross disproportion are debated; rarely is an issue simply “black or white”. The explanation is certainly not that black Americans, or black men specifically, are more violent or more prone to crime. Nor is it that the entirety of the police force and judicial system in the United States operate based on grossly unchecked racism. However, historically the former argument of black violence, inferiority, and the fear of revolt, has been the underlying driving force behind the war on drugs which is the primary catalyst and fuel of mass incarceration.
President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968. He saw drugs in America as a major issue needing to be addressed. Two years after his election he had a research team appointed to conduct research on marijuana to determine whether or not it affected health, should be legal, or affected society in any negative way. After a full year “the commission unanimously agreed that the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the home should no longer be a crime.” The commission stated that within “the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marijuana does not…rank very high.” Although this commission was of Nixon’s own appointing, he was angry and “felt betrayed…and rejected its findings” (Schlosser).
After his failed attempt at backing his planned offensive on drugs with science, Nixon proceeded to pass the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 which classified and regulated drugs into 5 distinct schedules. In Schedule 1, “drugs are considered the most dangerous…[and] pose a very high risk for addiction with little evidence of medical benefits.” Drugs found in this list include LSD (Acid), MDMA (ecstasy), heroin, and cocaine. Lastly, marijuana was included in the schedule even after Nixon’s own commission determined it to be unharmful and necessary to be decriminalized (War on Drugs).
This act was a precursor to the “all-out global war on the drug menace” that Nixon demanded in 1973. He established the Drug Enforcement Agency to “coordinate all federal efforts related to drug enforcement” (The DEA Years 34). The war on drugs that Nixon started in that year was with no uncertainty a direct offensive on minority communities and the anti-war population. Although the war on drugs and the formation of the DEA was presented as a necessary precaution and offensive on the pervasive invasion of drugs and drug culture ruining society, there was in fact little evidence to support the claim that drugs were a significant danger to society or primary catalyst for violent crime. One of Nixon’s head advisors, John Ehrlichman, was interviewed after his service under Nixon. His supervillain-esque statement specifically details the war on drugs “as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House” (LoBianco).
We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The war on drugs ended up being extremely effective at accomplishing this disruption of community. While “the difference [of prevalence of drug usage when comparing whites and blacks] is not substantial…[and] there is…little evidence…that blacks sell drugs more often than whites…[by] the late 1980s, the [drug related arrest] rates were six times higher for blacks than for whites” (National Research Council 60). This results in a vicious cycle. When disproportionate arrests disrupt black communities, more black children grow up without fathers, more women become single mothers pushing them into financial distress, and the prison system dehumanizes previously non-violent offenders resulting in the rise of recidivism rates. Recidivism is out of control. A study from 2005 conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 3 years after release 67.8 percent of the prisoners that had been freed, were rearrested. After five years: 76.6 percent. And of all rearrested within those 5 years, 56.7 percent were back in jail by the end of only the first year (Recidivism). The United States correctional system is not doing anywhere close to an adequate job in “correcting” inmates behaviors or rehabilitating them for release back into the free world. But why is that?
It’s because human bodies in prisons means profit. Unfortunately, that language is in no way figurative. Enter Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. CCA is a private prison corporation whose model for profit is directly tied to the number of human beings it keeps behind bars. CCA works with the conservative think-tank ALEC and helped to pass legislation such as “Mandatory Minimum” policies that exponentially increased both the influx of inmates, the lengths of their sentences, and the likelihood of their recidivism on release (DuVernay et al.).
To increase profits further, many of these prisons exploit practically free labor of prisoners. The loophole in the 13th amendment allows for slavery of individuals who have committed crimes; modern prisons fully exploit this loophole. The Bureau of Prisons only “pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce…mattresses…road signs and body armour for other government agencies, earning $500m in sales in fiscal 2016.” Even at the state level inmates are exploited for cheap labor. In California they generate sales in construction, textiles, and meat. In Kentucky inmates run the cattle industry. Idaho potatoes are nationally recognized yet are harvested using inmate labor (Prison Labour).
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC for short, creates “model bills mostly on fiscal issues that are templates for 800 to 1000 bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures every year” (Strassmann and Hirschkorn). Corporations that are a part of ALEC can propose legislation to politicians in ALEC. Additionally “corporate lobbyists secretly vote as equals with lawmakers on bills that those lawmakers then introduce to become laws in our states.” For example, CCA worked with ALEC to put forth a law that allowed police to pull-over anyone they believed looked like an “illegal immigrant”. Because of this legislation, immigration detention facilities built and operated by CCA were packed full of new “criminals” and profits continued to rise for CCA. Even outside of ALEC, CCA “started making contracts with states…so the states were required to keep [CCA’s] prisons filled, even if nobody was committing a crime.” These legal contracts gave states a monetary incentive to increase arrests leading to quotas needing to be fulfilled by police forces (DuVernay et al.).
Some of the most racially discriminatory laws passed that affected people of color more than any other were Mandatory Minimum sentencing laws: specifically mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986 and instituted mandatory minimum sentences for the possession of certain quantities of cocaine. Congress however, imposed harsher rulings for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine (Vagins and McCurdy i). “Distribution of just 5 grams of crack carries a minimum 5-year federal prison sentence, while…distribution of 500 grams [of powder cocaine] - 100 times the amount of crack cocaine - carries the same sentence” (i). The difference in harshness did not make logical sense. The United States Sentencing Commission determined that “crack is not appreciably different from powder cocaine in either its chemical composition or the physical reactions of its users” (i). In fact, the only difference between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine is the cost. Crack cocaine is only a fraction of the cost of powder cocaine and as a result “is more accessible for poor Americans, many of whom are African Americans” (i). More research done by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black Americans were more likely to be caught with crack cocaine while white Americans were more likely to be caught with powder cocaine. Therefore, this discrepancy in sentencing “unjustly and disproportionately penalize African American defendants” (i). Before these mandatory minimum laws, drug sentencing for blacks was 11% above whites, after the law, that number rose to 49% (ii).
Something needs to be done, and it will take time. Mandatory Minimum sentencing laws are only one example of many that target and disproportionately affect and imprison those in minority communities across America. The war on drugs for so long was peddled as a necessary war fighting against the evils of drug use in America; but even today positive changes are being seen in states decriminalizing marijuana, focusing money on rehabilitation over incarceration, and instituting racial bias training in local police forces. For example, in Washington state where marijuana is fully legalized and taxed, conviction for marijuana related crimes are down 81%, violent crime has decreased, $83 million has been collected from the taxation of legal marijuana which “are funding substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, youth and adult drug education, community health care services, and academic research and evaluation on the effects of marijuana legalization”, and use of marijuana among teens has not gone up (Status Report). Additionally, the state is no longer spending millions to enforce marijuana laws, instead, that money is going to other state programs including education and rehabilitation. Should more states implement similar policies, it would certainly have no small effect on the incarceration rate and would be one small step forward for the United States to begin correcting its massive error of the war on drugs.
The problem of mass-incarceration is no simple issue. The combination of profit-centric corporate involvement along with decades of anti-drug policy and propaganda feeding off the fear of the American people have led to a Gordian’s knot of a problem that will likely take many more decades of the focused and educated work of individuals. The war on drugs was built on grounds of racism and for the purpose of maintaining white superiority through the imprisonment and disruption of minority communities. This is a shame inducing fact that cannot be overlooked similar to how slavery can not be overlooked. The United States’ prisons remain full of minorities and are kept out of the public’s eye and mind. Every human being deserves the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and no possession of substance should revoke those rights. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States and the era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs exploited its loophole to usher it back into society in a socially acceptable guise. But there is hope, the inequality is beginning to become known and important laws are in the process of change. In these times of change and difficulty, it is important to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg on the 19th of November 1863: we are a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln). America has always been known as the land of the free; tt is time it lived up to its title.
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“The DEA Years.” History of the Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Dept. of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, 1986, pp. 30–39, www.dea.gov/about/history/1970-1975%20p%2030-39.pdf.
DuVernay, Ava, et al. 13th. Forward Movement, 2016.
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Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” 1863. Speeches & Writings, Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm
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U.S. Constitution. Art./Amend. XIII, Sec. 1.
Vagins, Deborah J, and Jesselyn McCurdy. “Cracks in the System: 20 Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law.” American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, Oct. 2006, www.aclu.org/other/cracks-system-20-years-unjust-federal-crack-cocaine-law.
Walmsley, Roy. “World Prison Population List (Tenth Edition).” Internation Centre for Prison Studies, Oct. 2013, www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf.
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Warde, Bryan. “Black Male Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice Systems of the USA, Canada, and England: a Comparative Analysis of Incarceration.” Springer US, 11 Oct. 2012, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12111-012-9235-0#citeas.
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