Mass incarceration, or the practice of jailing large numbers of people for minor offenses, is a topic that has been heavily debated in the United States for years. Those with jobs in criminal law institutions often debate that incarceration is necessary to keep society safe, while others argue it does more harm than good. 

Being a leader in the imprisonment rate in the world, with more than 20% of the global prison population, the United States incarceration system is worth taking a closer look at. Could the money spent on locking up offenders be better used elsewhere? Are there alternatives to incarceration that could be more effective?

These are important questions to consider when examining mass incarceration in the US. To better understand the incarceration system and its effects, let's take a closer look at the history of the practice, the issues and controversies associated with it, and its root causes and effects.

Let’s Start From Scratch

The controversial practice of mass incarceration can be defined as the imprisonment of a large percentage of a population, typically resulting from stricter sentencing laws and an increase in police activity. 

In the United States, incarceration is often used alongside the term "prison-industrial complex," which refers to the interconnectedness of the prison system and the various industries that profit from it.

Let’s start with the history of mass incarceration.  We can trace its roots in the United States back to the War on Drugs, which began in the 1980s under President Richard Nixon. The War on Drugs was a campaign launched by the US government with the intention of reducing drug use and related crime. 

However, many argue that it was really a way to target and criminalize certain communities, specifically among black and Latino neighborhoods.

In 1981, when Reagan took office, the US prison population was around 329,000. Eight years later, upon his leaving the duty, it amounted to 627,000. Since the 1970s, the incarcerated population in the United States has skyrocketed by 500%, leading to more than 2 million people behind bars. 

The rise in mass incarceration nowadays can be attributed to a number of factors, including an increase in drug-related offenses and stricter sentencing laws.

Why Are So Many People Locked Up?

Massive confinement of people is a relatively new phenomenon, and its causes are still being debated. Some scholars argue that the practice is a direct result of the war on drugs, which we’ve talked about in the previous paragraph, while others point to longer-term trends such as the declining value of manual labor and the rise of mass media.

Speaking of other causes of mass incarceration, we’ll mention mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1990s. These contributed to the problem significantly by requiring lengthy prison terms for even minor offenses such as criminal mischief

Finally, the privatization of prisons incentivizes incarceration by providing financial rewards for keeping prison population levels high.

Whatever the cause, keeping a large number of US citizens behind bars has had a profound impact on American society. It has disproportionately affected minority communities and has been widely criticized for violating prisoner rights. 

Mass incarceration is also expensive, and it has strained state budgets across the country. As more attention is focused on the practice, its causes and effects will continue to be debated.

Who is Most Impacted?

One obvious problem with mass incarceration is that it disproportionately affects people of color. According to a report from The Sentencing Project, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites and Hispanics - twice as much. 

In addition, people of color are more likely to be sentenced to prison for nonviolent offenses, and they are often subject to harsher penalties than white defendants. 

As a result, the whole procedure disproportionately impacts communities of color. This is not only unjust but also undermines the social and economic fabric of these communities. Mass incarceration and race prejudices tear families apart, reduce employment opportunities, and decrease access to education and housing.

It also creates barriers to voting and civic participation. On top of that, the criminal justice system punishes poverty, and incarceration is one of the most powerful tools in perpetuating it.

What are the Effects of Locking People Up?

Locking up a substantial part of the population has become a widespread problem in the United States. It has been shown to negatively affect individuals, families, and even entire communities.

Individuals who are incarcerated face several challenges. They often have difficulty finding employment after they are released, and they may also struggle with mental and physical health problems. Families also suffer when a loved one is incarcerated. They may experience financial difficulties and emotional distress. 

In addition, the effects of mass incarceration can negatively impact entire communities. Studies have shown that communities with high incarceration rates tend to have higher rates of crime and violence. Let's not forget that the family is the foundation of every community. When incarceration tears families apart, it also weakens communities.

What Happened to Imprisoned Populations During the Pandemic?

In the United States, incarcerating a vast number of people has been a serious issue for many years. The pandemic has only made things worse. Prisons and jails are often overcrowded and unsanitary, making them ideal breeding grounds for diseases like COVID-19. 

Inmates are also at a higher risk of developing severe health complications from the virus. In addition, prisoners are typically not given the same level of medical care as the general population. 

As a result, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on incarcerated populations. In some cases, prisoners have been released early in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. However, these solutions to mass incarceration haven’t had long-term effects. 

The pandemic has shone a light on the need for reform in the criminal justice system, and mass incarceration is one of the areas that should be looked into first.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, mass incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color and creates many adverse outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. The pandemic has only made things worse, as incarcerated populations are at a higher risk of developing serious health complications from virus outbreaks.

At the moment, It’s not clear what the future holds. It is possible that the current situation will lead to more widespread calls for reform. On the other hand, the already daunting mass incarceration statistics may instead continue to rise and remain a significant problem in the years to come. 

One thing’s for sure: a thorough reform of the prison system is sorely needed, and soon.