Mass Incarceration and the Prison System

Updated June 27, 2021

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Mass Incarceration and the Prison System essay

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Mass Incarceration is called many things from mass imprisonment to hyper-incarceration but all mean the same thing. Mass incarceration is referred to and can be defined to the extreme or high rates of imprisonment/concentration that many Americans experience especially those of color and the African-American community. The history of what is essentially known as today as mass incarceration has a very long & complicated history, that technically did not start until the 1960s and 70s during the Nixon administration era but stems from the time around slavery had ended, that was due to the act of infective and improper leadership, reforms, and laws that in the long run of preventing and stopping crime has created a new problem.

In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, the war that initially ended slavery, even before the ratification and the passing of the 13th Amendment on December 1865. The 13th Amendment states that it is unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave, with the exception of an individual being convicted of a crime, criminals, or punishment of a crime. In other words, the amendment gave freedom to all Americans but unless like previously stated if an individual were to be found guilty of a crime created a loophole that would instantly be exploited in the eyes of certain politicians and people in power, specifically those in power in the south.

After the passing of the Amendment and the freedom of the slaves, the amendment was soonly exploited as after slaves that had been freed were arrested in large quantities and was dubbed as the first prison boom of that era. During the Civil Rights movement, many politicians started coming forward and putting the blame for the sudden rise and increase in criminal activity and crime rates. Policies that were later introduced essentially exploited the loophole in the 13th amendment and as these policies had severe/harsh sentencing; introduced by Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, making it easy to arrest and imprison those individuals especially those of minority, color, and African-American.

The United States is considered to be five percent of the world’s population, yet it houses about 25% of the world’s prisoners, what that means is that the United States holds the largest prisoners in the world despite it being a small percentage contribution to the overall world population. The prison population of the United States began to see a rise during the late 1960s and early 1970s during the Nixon administration. Reagan’s policies had risen the imprisonment rates but Clinton’s policies were the ones to double that and exponentially increase the prison population by the end of his term.

Effects of mass incarceration: As a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the act created harsh sentencing on crack cocaine use which had disproportionately affected African-Americans and their communities. The introduction of mandatory sentencing penalties took a big effect on the black community. Because of this many black communities were being stripped away from their families and vast amounts of individuals going to prison for long periods of time. As a result of policies like this, millions of people were forced into prison, breaking up families and forcing many children to live without their parents.

Mandatory minimums also affected judges as most of them were stripped down from their neutral position in the court, and given prosecutors. Mandatory minimums and three strikes law had an effect on the prison institutions as this lead to significant increases in prison sentencing, and those who already had two or more felony convictions limited their chances of getting out, and many sentenced to life in prison. It was the use and result of these policies that created an increase in the use of imprisonment as a counter to crime. It reflected policy that left the United States high levels of confinement that we see today with unintended consequences policymakers could have not seen.

Sociological Perspective

Decade long policies and reforms over several years that have given rise to this problem as it is just now that today as a society are feeling the effects of past decades and questionable policies. Policies proposed by and implemented by former presidents who essentially each had their own take on crime but all had the same thing in common and that was to be stricter and set longer sentencing as punishment. High rates of imprisonment in the United States and the substantial number of people being held in prisons and jails are that of the result of decisions by policymakers and other contributing factors that lead to the increase and serious use of prison sentences. The Nixon Administration started a figurative “war on drugs” treating drug dependency and addiction as a crime issue rather than as a public health concern.

This was only used as an excuse for specifically targeted groups to disrupt certain communities such as the hippies and the blacks, comments made by Nixon Advisor, John Ehrlichman, support this as he stated “…the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left an black people….by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily…”. This essentially leads to hundreds of thousands of citizens being charged and sent to jail for committing low-level offenses. During 1980 the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics came out with a report stating that in 1980 the United States saw a prisoner population increases by 5%, double that of previous years having with a total of 329,122 by the end of the year.

Reagan with the help of Congress established and signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that gave different mandatory sentencing penalties for drugs, including marijuana. Other policies that Bill Clinton put forward such as mandatory minimums and three strikes under the Federal Crime Bill of 1994 significantly increased prison sentencing.

Specifically, policies such as three-strikes law, as the law stated individuals already convicted of a felony who has been previously convicted of two or more violent or serious offenses put a limit on their ability to receive a lighter punishment other than a life sentence. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994(Federal Crime Bill of 1994) was responsible for a massive expansion of the prison system, provided all kinds of money and motivation for law enforcement. Considered the largest crime bill in the history of the United States for the time, the bill consisted of $9.7 billion that increased funding to states building prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs to arrest and imprison as many people involved in drug crimes.

CoreCivic became a multi-billion dollar business by making contracts with states making it the leader in private prisons. This meant that states were obligated to keep these private prisons filled even when no one was committing a crime. By constantly having these private prisons filled this created profit for the company. What this means is private companies such as CoreCivic who own private prisons made millions and billions of dollars annually at the expense of keeping prisons full, and it was important to keep them full to drive up profit and stockholder shares.

Because of this, it allowed previously established, state and government, facility prisons to not only send their prisoners to these private prisons but pay these private companies to build bigger and more prisons to allow a larger influx of individuals who are already in prison to be transferred to these privately owned facilities. Companies like this benefit from high crime rates as the higher the crime rates the higher arrest rates are. Meaning that more people get to go to jail and prison while they make a profit. Solutions: Policies that had been previously introduced were later pinned against other policies that had lighter punishments, but all failed.

First attempt was in between 1975 through the mid- 1980s which was aiming to make sentencing procedures and outcomes more consistent and fair. The second was aimed towards the increase in certainty and severity which had the most polarizing and negative effect as this ultimately introduced mandatory minimum and three strikes law which given to recently admitted former president Bill Clinton now admits his 1994 crime bill, which those two and other policies were on, was a mistake.

Ohio is looked at now an example of prison reform and so are other states. From Ohio’s experience and State-level analyses, analysts from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) Bureau of Research and Evaluation discovered that most of their offenders were in prison due to drug-related activities/incidents. They had also discovered that many of them suffered from substance abuse and mental health. It was found that 76% of Ohio’s offenders needed some sort-of use treatment while a combined percentage and a total of 91% of offenders ( 30% male, 61% female) have had a previous history with mental health.

States like New York, California, New Jersey and Maryland with extensive criminal justice reforms have seen a reduction in their state prison population and crime rates between the years of 1999 and 2008 declining from between 13% and 35%. This indicates and it is believed that with the correct knowledge and different experiences by states show that prison population and crime rates could be reduced. With a proper approach to legislative action in creating better rehabilitation efforts in states and by using state data, other states and the government can identify opportunity groups in reducing imprison rates and shorter sentences. States crime rates in recent years have seemed to slow down over the last couple of years.


Mass incarceration wasn’t the result of recent policies or a huge surge of putting people into prisons. As it was the direct result of decades-long policy created through all government levels. Policies that had a big impact on the American society and the political world and the prison system felt today.

I believe those to blame is on past administrations such as the Reagan and Clinton, Nixon may have set up the system but there were Reagan’s and Clinton’s laws and hard view of crime that lead to strict policies on crime. Up until the recent 2016 presidential run where former president Bill Clinton was endorsing his wife Hilary where he came out and said that his bill was a mistake. Now to me, that speaks volumes and tells me that he knew what he was doing at the time.

The Reagan and Clinton administration to an extent knew the laws they were putting into place although I can’t really say they believed it would lead to hundreds of thousands and millions of individuals being incarcerated today but for sure the Clinton administration was negligent when it came out with not one but three other policies on crime.

The problem that essentially leads us to the problem of mass incarceration is due to policies that were implemented many years ago and up until the early 2000s up until now is where we as a society, a nation is suffering and trying to figure out a way to reform and solve this issue. Negligence by former presidential administrations and decade-old policies gave effort in solving one social problem but in doing so created another.

Mass Incarceration and the Prison System essay

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Mass Incarceration and the Prison System. (2021, Jun 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/mass-incarceration-and-the-prison-system/


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