Incarcerated men working in fields.

Anthropology: The History of Mass Incarceration in the United States and Its Connection to Racism

Modern imprisonment was created in London, England on the ideas of a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. Before his ideas, prison was just a place to hold a prisoner until their actual punishment could be carried out. Punishment for crimes before prison were either corporal or capital punishment. Corporal punishment included things that would cause the guilty person physical pain. Capital punishment included a variety of methods that would claim the lie of the guilty individual. Bentham was against the death penalty and created the concept of a prison that would hold prisoners as punishment for their crimes. He even created and drew up plans for a facility that prisoners could stay in for extended periods of time. His design was created with the intent of ensuring that an inmate would never really know if a guard is watching them or not. This, in theory, would save the prison money. Bentham reasoned that since the inmates could not be certain of how many guards were present in the prison, then fewer officers could be hired to maintain peace within the prison. Bentham’s prison was never actually built, but his concept of using prisons as a form of long-term punishment began gaining attention. By the 19th century, prisons were being built for the sole purpose of containing inmates and were intended to deter people from committing crimes. During this time, people found guilty of crimes are sent to prisons and stripped of their personal freedoms. Inmates would often be forced to participate in hard labor and live in extremely harsh conditions. Eventually, the goal of a prison sentence was to rehabilitate inmates. Many people at this time believed that the fear of being put in prison again would deter an inmate from committing any crime again, but others had theories that there should be policies in place to help reform prisoners before they are set free and returned to the outside world. The policies would include things like mental examinations and educational programs. There are opposing viewpoints on the rehabilitation beliefs of imprisonment. Some believe that living a life surrounded by individuals involved in crime will only cause an inmate to be even more involved with the lifestyle. Even with all the controversy surrounding the rehabilitation of criminals, incarceration continues on as the most common form of punishment around the world for criminal behavior.

Mass Incarceration Growth

The era of mass incarceration in the United States began in the 1970s. The growth of the number of inmates in prisons was intentional. Numbers were so inflamed because of campaign rhetoric that was focused on the uptick in crime. This was all orchestrated by the people in power, which included legislators that demanded stricter sentencing laws, state and local executives that ordered all law enforcement officers to be tougher on crime, and prison administrators. All of this started with the “tough on crime”, “law and order”, and “war on drugs” policies that were initiated by President Nixon and then established by President Reagan. President Bush and President Clinton then went on to continue the policies in place and exacerbated them with Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.

Cause Beyond Laws

From the founding of the United States, there have been waves of crime or criminal activity and it is then followed by disproportionate imprisonment of individuals on the margins of society. Even though the unprecedented increase in the inmate population during the “war on crime” may seem like a departure from the norm, the groundwork for this was put into place way before the start of the 1970s. The number of people sent to prison during this time was definitely more than any time in the country before that, but the policies in place during the time that fueled the growth stemmed from a familiar narrative. The narrative being public anxiety about criminal behavior by racial and ethnic minorities, so they used state punishment to control them.

This narrative has been present in the United States since the founding of the country and has repeated itself multiple times throughout the country’s history. From America’s founding to the present, there have been waves of crime or criminal activity and then obviously disproportionate patterns of imprisonment of those not a part of the main group of society, including groups like black people, Native Americans, and immigrants. This can be visible in statistics, as forty to fifty percent of the prison population from 1850 to 1940 consisted of foreign-born and non-English speaking European immigrants. Another statistic from more recent times is that, in 2015, black and Latino individuals made up about fifty-five percent of imprisoned people in federal or state prisons.

Statistics showing the disproportionate incarceration rates between races.

Stereotypes Fuel Incarceration

The narrative of minority groups causing more crime is founded on myths and stereotypes formed around these groups. This stems from cultural beliefs that are created from harmful stereotypes. In general, all stereotypes are harmful and damaging for the group the stereotype is about. Typically, stereotypes are created for an outside group to generalize another group they do not know about. To truly reform the prison system, the old narrative based on stereotypes has to be addressed, dealt with, and subverted. As a society, we must understand that prisons in this country are intertwined with the institution of slavery and generations of racial injustice. The era of mass incarceration has encroached on the freedoms of racial and ethnic minorities.

The year 1865 is just as notable as the year 1970 for criminologists. The year 1865 marked the end of the American Civil War and saw the passage of the 13th Amendment, but it is also the year that triggered the nation’s first big wave of black Americans being arrested and incarcerated. The mass incarceration of black Americans this year was the result of state governments reacting to powerful social forces. One social force was the public’s anxiety and fear of crime that stemmed from black Americans being freed from slavery recently. The other powerful social force was the economic depression that resulted from the Civil War, which resulted in the loss of a free supply of labor. Because of this, the state and local leaders of the South used the criminal justice system to try to sooth the public’s fear and improve the depressed economy. Black Codes were passed all throughout the South that outlawed behaviors specific to black people. These laws also stripped formerly incarcerated people of some citizen rights even after they were finished with their sentences. Rights such as temporarily or permanently suspending the right to vote for those who have been convicted of felonies. Southern law enforcement authorities enforced these racist laws, and this then caused a great number of black people to be funneled into state punishment systems. By the 1870s, in the southern states, about ninety-five percent of people under criminal custody were black.

Incarcerated men working in fields.

Working Prisoners

The wave of imprisoned people after the Civil War ended was used to help rebuild the South. State penal authorities deployed and rented out convicted people to private companies. This was made possible through a system of convict leasing that put incarcerated people to work in places like prison farms. Convict leasing was a fiscally attractive strategy during the reconstruction of the South after the Civil War and economic depression. Convicted leasing programs that operated through external supervision gave the state a much needed profit because it enabled states to take convicted people into custody without the need to build prisons to house them. Eventually, changes economically, politically, and industrially in the United States caused convict leasing to end by 1928. The next form of labor introduced by state prison authorities were chain gangs. A chain gang is a brutal form of forced labor that is inflicted upon incarcerated people, such as building roads or clearing land. Chain gangs existed into the 1940s and just like the convicted leasing before it, chain gangs consisted of mostly black people convicted of crimes. Convict leasing and chain gangs were legal because of the loophole found in the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and indentured servitude except for punishment for crime. This paved the way for southern states to use convict leasing, chain gangs, and prison farms as a legal way to continue control over black people and have labor for little or no cost. Since almost all prisoners were black people at the time. According to many accounts, the conditions of the convicts’ labor were horrible, and the labor itself was extremely taxing and difficult. Private companies that used convict labor no longer had an ownership interest in the longevity of their laborers because they could be easily replaced at a low cost from the state. The abusive treatment towards prisoners in forced labor continued on for years to come.

A photo of inmates working in a chain gang in the 1930s.

20th Century Incarceration

In the first half of the 20th century, prison populations in the northern states began to increase. This coincided with the shifting ideas towards race and ethnicity. With the influx of black Americans moving north and the increase of European immigrants arriving in northern cities caused stress trying to get the limited number of jobs available. With a brief spike in violent crime during the 1920s and the media coverage that followed caused certain types of people to be branded as “public enemies”, which created public fear and supported criminal stereotypes. The growing fear of crime and criminals intensified policy practices all across the country and then inspired the passage of mandatory sentencing policies. Both of these contributed to a surge in incarceration. State prison populations across the country increased by sixty-seven percent between the years of 1926 and 1940.

During the Great Migration in the years 1910 to 1970, over six million black Americans moved from the south to northern urban areas. The percentage of black Americans living in the South dropped significantly from 1910 to 1970. The influx of internal movement north overlapped with a wave of immigrants leaving southern and eastern Europe. During this time period, the dominant class of white people in the north connected criminal activity with three groups: lower-class white Americans, black Americans, and immigrants. Even though all three groups were thought of as criminals, the two groups with white skin were believed to be criminals because of social conditions. The same could not be said for the last group. Beliefs of racial superiority were still very present during this time and were combined with stereotypical portrayals in the media that only fueled the misconceptions and racism. The shifting beliefs towards racism and crime had serious implications for black Americans. In the first half of the 20th century, the racial disparity in United States prisons nearly doubled within the northern states and was most affected by the Great Migration.

Conditions within northern prisons were harsh, just as they were in the south. Forced labor was still preset but just took a different form. Inmates in a northern prison would do industrial type work. The conditions and treatment of incarcerated workers were anything but ideal. Since white immigrants got lumped in with white Americans around the 1940s, the general public became increasingly concerned with the conditions people endured in prison. In the 1940s, there was a prison reform that made prison-life more physically and psychologically tolerable. The new prison models offered more recreation, visitation, and communication to the outside world. More notably, this period saw the first therapy program, educational training, and vocational training in the prison setting. These new programs were put into place largely on the thought of making prisons like a rehabilitation center for the incarcerated.

A graph showing the statistics of incarcerations during the years of the Great Migration.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The beginning of the 1960s brought politics with a “law and order” rhetoric that had racial undertones. This ushered in another era of mass incarceration that flipped the racial majority in the prisons of the United States. In the midcentury, the majority of inmates were white Americans and by the 1990s the majority of inmates switched to black Americans. Just like the period before, the criminal justice system was just a tool to marginalize and penalize people of color. President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Crime” in 1965, which caused people to view crime in urban areas to be connected to race. The consistent myth of minority criminality still lives on in society today. The history of mass incarceration in the United States started and continues on because of stereotypes and deeply rooted racism. Our culture as a whole has targeted, through laws, minority groups in this country out of fear. This issue is still relevant today and is relevant through movements such as Black Lives Matter. Our culture has shifted to fighting against the corrupt powers that seek to put down those in minorities. Groups of people in this country are still recovering and trying to fight their way out of injustice caused by the fear of minorities being the cause of crime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *