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Mass Incarceration in America: The Economic & Social Impacts on the African-American Community


The U.S government's policy of mass incarceration has led to the development of the for profit prison industry that has targeted African-Americans and led to the economic stagnation of their community. Through criminalizing common behavior in impoverished neighborhoods and designing a justice system that is dependent on revenue from court fees, the U.S government has disproportionately targeted poor predominantly African-American communities to fill their poverty to prison pipeline.

In his work, "Race, Prison, Poverty: The Race to Incarcerate in the Age of Correctional Keynesianism" the author Paul Street explores the impact that the "war on drugs" has had in fueling surge in mass incarceration which has directly and disproportionately impacted African-American's in the past 30 years. Street argues that the U.S government's decision not to include prisoners in unemployment statistics further harms African-American communities by creating a view of the American economy that largely ignores the devastating effects incarceration is having on these communities. This ironically occurs while the U.S government acknowledges jobs created by mass incarceration in its economic data.

Race also plays a role in how legislation is created and who is most impacted by those laws. Poor communities are routinely targeted for drug related criminal offenses while the data shows that crimes such as cocaine possession are prosecuted at a lower rate than similar offenses for crack cocaine possession. These policies have led to the development of a social and economic underclass or as Michelle Alexander describes it the modern American caste system.

Michelle Alexander, civil rights attorney and the author of the book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Color Blindness" illustrates how the system of mass incarceration has reinforced a race based caste system which permits legal discrimination against a marginalized segment of society. Alexander makes the argument that much like policies during American Apartheid or "Jim Crow" were used to prevent full integration of African-American's into society, the U.S system of mass incarceration is used to create a race based caste system that generationally marginalizes and excludes African-Americans from full participation into society. Alexander uncovers the role mass incarceration plays in creating a permanently, disenfranchised, second class citizenry that is largely based on race and therefore disproportionately impacts the African-American community.

The "New Jim Crow", as Alexander put it can be seen in laws that penalize the poor for simply being poor. In many communities around America, it is easier for police officers to meet their ticketing/performance quotas in poor neighborhoods. As a result, poor residents face increased penalties for minor illegal activities. When faced with apparently low cost tickets, poor people are frequently unable to pay the required fee and as a result incur additional "late payment" fees and/or are placed in jail. "A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It's a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay." (NPR)


The U.S policy of imprisoning the poor when they can't afford to pay additional court fees caused overpopulation of government run prison facilities. It also continues to marginalize a segment of society by having a policy of compounding financial and legal penalties for infractions in order to feed the prison pipeline. This cycle makes it difficult for low income offenders to ever get out of the prison system because their low income contributes to their inability to pay fines. Late payment result in compounded late fees which when left unpaid result in jail time. In an effort to better manage prison facilities, the government began to allow private industry to build and run for profit prisons.

A complication of the U.S system of mass incarceration is the decision to privatize prisons. Rina Palta an NPR journalist and the author of "Why for Profit Prisons House More Inmates of Color" reveals that private prisons purposefully target younger healthier inmates that have come into the prison system since or as a result of the "war on drugs" because the prison has a lower cost of healthcare with younger healthier inmates. Since the prison population has exploded with African-American males since the "war on drugs" started this policy has the effect of funneling more African-American males into prison systems that are not equipped with adequate healthcare services, more violent and offer less rehabilitation services to encourage reintegration.

African-American males are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted and face longer prison sentences. Historically, males in a community have been the primary breadwinners or higher earning breadwinners. Removing a substantial populations of a community's earning power, results in the economic stagnation of that community.

Jeff Guo, a Washington Post journalist and author of "America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality" also argues that America's decision to erase the incarcerated population from the U.S economic data, creates a climate where a significant portion of the working age population can be discounted and therefore their communities are not considered during economic discussions. Guo argues that American society's refusal to acknowledge the consequences that mass incarceration has on the broader American economy is a mistake that has significant negative impacts on the economic stability of the African-American community. In his work, Guo also cites Alexander in acknowledging that mass incarceration has created the lower caste system that permits the social and economic marginalization of African-Americans.

With staggering statistics like "One in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life" (Huffington post) It is no surprise that the absence of black men in their communities during their primary earning years reduces the overall income of the community."The boom in incarceration had an adverse effect on the relative economic progress of African American men, and that this prison boom was primarily a policy choice and not a result of deteriorating labor market conditions." (Equitable Growth) The combination of the incarceration of breadwinners during their prime earning years and the fact that the women in the community generally earn less, leads to the economic stagnation of the community.

This cycle leads to intergenerational economic stagnation. Two researchers from MIT conducted an in depth examination of the impact of mass incarceration on social equality. In their work "Incarceration & Social Inequality" these researchers argue is that mass incarceration leads to social and economic disadvantages that are passed from one generation to the next. This generational poverty and social displacement leads to generations of people who are in large part excluded from society. To prove their point, they use data illustrate the effects poor education have on the likelihood of African-Americans entering the prison system and the impact of having a criminal record on has on economically destabilizing a community and creating what they call "intergenerational inequality".

Researchers Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf from Prisonpolicy.org explore the effects of poor education the resulting poverty on which populations are at higher risks for being incarcerated in the U.S. What the researchers uncovered was that poverty has a disproportionate effect on those that are likely to end up in prison. Those affected tend to be largely African-American and Hispanic and this connection is largely a result of U.S education and criminal policies that create social environments which fuel the prison pipeline.

The criminal justice system in the United States appears to be designed to unfairly target poor African-Americans and Hispanic populations. The penalties for crimes committed by this population are harsher and the people in these communities are more often than not easy targets because they are poor and uneducated. This targeting creates a vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education and poor economic opportunities that is often passed down from one generation to the next.

Hi Jozia, I would like to say welcome to EssayForum :)

We are here to help you sharing our insights related to the essay that you have written. Mass incarceration in America is indeed an interesting topic to be discussed further. However, since this is a Research Papers category, I would say that you need clear citations or references that supports your arguments or opinions related to the topic that you have discussed. This would help you gain stronger foundation of the research itself.

Furthermore, when it is related to grammatical or structural issues, I assume that you have no serious issues that are necessary to be addressed. Only few of them such as "Late payment resultS in compounded...", and the use of contraction like "...the poor when they can'tcannot afford to pay additional...". As you know, in research paper, contraction is not appropriate to be used in the paper. This would make the writing less academic and less formal.

Lastly, I hope to see the clear references in your revision later on. You can just post them below my feedback. Do not hesitate to ask if you need further assistance. Good luck :)


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