It has been three centuries since the first public prison was built on colonial American soil.
A system which was constructed as a means of repression and domination, not safety or law, had its humble beginnings in York, Maine. This prison system eventually developed, and as America grew, so did the amount of carceral institutions. However, it is difficult to find a record of how many Americans were incarcerated before the Civil War. This is not a coincidence, since it is likely that the number of incarcerations was so low before this time period that no record was kept.
After slavery was outlawed in the 19th century, formerly enslaved people were essentially deemed illegal. Southern laws dubbed “Black Codes” drove these former slaves into prisons, harshly criminalizing petty acts such as vagrancy and loitering. With this, the first act of mass incarceration by the American government had been completed, and a generational cycle of trauma, loss and hurt had been created for Black Americans.
Moving forward, carceral policy continued its horrific history. In the mid-20th century, the American government imprisoned Japanese American civilians in an extremely illegal campaign during WWII, and later endorsed McCarthyism, an anti-communist attack on its citizens, where many people were wrongfully imprisoned. Though neither of these atrocities by the United States government equated to mass incarceration, they both are ways in which the U.S government failed its own citizens.
After decades of relative stagnation in prison population growth, former U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan forever altered the prison and policing systems of America.
The pair’s combined efforts to criminalize low level, nonviolent drug offenses was deemed the “War on Drugs.” This legislative effort to lock up predominantly working class people of color can be blamed for the continued generational loss that low income people of color continue to endure.
The legislation of past U.S. presidents caused the prison population to balloon. Current President Joe Biden also has blood on his hands. He is well known as the author of the 1994 crime bill which greatened the sentencing disparities between races and contributed even more to the growing prison population.
Mass incarceration began in the 80s, but despite this long history, it is still a major issue today. Currently, nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated.
Academics across the country are studying the effects of incarceration and policing. One of these researchers is Dr. Elliot Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. In a New University interview with Currie, he expressed negative feelings towards incarceration.
“I think [prison] doesn’t affect [incarcerated people] well. You lose the right to certain kinds of income benefits to housing benefits at a number of other things. So, and that’s in addition to the huge amount of psychological trauma that incarceration inflicts on people… It messes people up.”
This is an underrated aspect of incarceration that the public often fails to consider. Inmates’ mental health are often put at risk due to the nature of prison life. When a human is in such dangerous, unsanitary and sometimes unhinged conditions, it’s normal to develop or worsen mental health issues.
“[An inmate] told me nothing good happens in prison,” Currie said, recalling a conversation with a repeat inmate.
Obviously, policing plays a massive role in the carceral process as well. In recent years, there has been an unprecedented push to reform or abolish police departments nationwide due to the failures of these institutions. Currie and other academics find issues in policing, but he views it as a two-sided problem.
“We over police certain communities… particularly communities of color, and to some extent poor communities of any color, and that obviously has a big impact on our levels of incarceration, because if you flood communities with a bunch of cops who are looking to arrest people and are looking to make their arrest quotas,” he said.
“But what I think sometimes folks don’t think about is [how America has] under police[d] communities at the same time… It doesn’t actually have to be from the police [themselves] but it has to be from somebody who’s providing protection against insecurity and violence in those communities.”
Mass incarceration is a real phenomenon that has an unfortunate and lengthy history which has caused generations of pain, predominantly in Black, working class families. There has been a massive failure in policing and legislation that has led to the needless incarceration of so many individuals. Ultimately, these two travesties must be undone if there is to be any form of racial, economic or mental health justice for America’s working class people of color.
Regarding mass incarceration, there is a simple solution that would make an immediate positive impact: decriminalize all drugs.
The fact is that if citizens want to do drugs, they will do them. Prohibition proved that attempting to ban drugs will only backfire, so the U.S. government should repeal the policies of the War on Drugs. The senseless incarceration of Americans has been immensely harmful and overdose deaths have increased since the War on Drugs began.
As for policing, a clear solution is not present. Abolition movements have shown promise but are not accessible currently. Public support for issues such as police abolition tails off after mass media’s coverage of a major social event — such as George Floyd’s murder — ends. Police reform has gained support in the last decade, but it appears that widespread support for it only occurs when an unarmed black person is killed in the street. Whatever the long term solution may be, Currie’s take is absolutely correct: some form of community policing is necessary, although over-policing must be curbed.
Community policing would not allow for a travesty such as Ahmaud Arbery’s death. Admittedly, it is uncertain how to prevent tyrannic heads of community policing. However, the roots of crime are often economic or mental health needs, which would likely be helped by police abolition and funding of communities. Although never seen before in America outside of “community watchdog” neighborhoods, community policing would be free from government intervention. In a transition away from the current police state America lives in, funds would be distributed to departments which would hypothetically better citizens’ economic and mental well being, lessening crime and therefore our need for police.
Ultimately, it’s up to the United States government to correct these wrongs, but considering their track record with incarceration policy, they cannot be trusted to make the changes necessary for a better, safer America.
Jacob Ramos is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.