By Valerie Reynoso
Mass Incarceration in the US may make many believe that our safety is being ensured through harsher measures, although it is not necessarily the case and it has proven to be detrimental to communities of color.
Mass Incarceration refers to the influx of the prison population that has increased by 500% within the past thirty years. Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term that regards the overlapping interests found in the government and industry through which mechanisms such as surveillance, policing and imprisonment are seen as solutions to economic, social and political issues in contemporary American society. The PIC greatly assists in the maintenance of authority of people who get their power through racial and economic privileges and is notorious for being among the most heavily influenced by institutionalized racism and has proven to be substantially beneficial to for-profit prisons, private prison lobbyists and affiliated corporations.
The notions that institutional racism is stemmed from play a significant role in the perception of young men of color and have a heavy influence on the stigmas pushed towards them that make them more susceptible to mass incarceration. These stigmas completely distort the way police officers and other officials affiliated with the law perceive and misinterpret young men of color and mistreat them--racial profiling--according to the false, animus, criminal perception they have of them. The dissimilar perceptions of black youth and white youth perpetuate differences that further illustrate the blatant impact of institutionalized racism in the US as a whole through the exposure of the PIC as a maintenance of racial hierarchy and systemic oppression.
The impact that mass incarceration in the US has on black youth affected by the Prison Industrial Complex in the late 20th century and 21st century (1990s and 2000s-2010s) alludes to the increased profit of private prisons, the detriment of the perception black youth have of themselves, a reinforcement of systemic oppression and stigmas pushed towards people of color, the racialization of crime, and social death.
Private prisons have, and still do, make billions off of exploiting prisoners within PIC who are predominately black and Latino: "The prison industry has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry, complete with its own online community of corrections vendors. Prisoners are ideal customers...Indeed, entire prisons are now operated by private companies. Private prisons have been on the rise since the mid-1980s, and, today, over half the states rely on for-profit prisons, where roughly 90,000 inmates are housed each year" (Desmond Chapter 7). Institutionalized racism has resulted in the exploitation of people of color, particularly black youth, for profit through prison privatization.
Within the environment that the PIC subjects black youth to, they come to develop a much more dominant sense of heteropatriarchy, entitlement and violence: "not only do men’s prisons 'constitute a key institutional site for the expression and reproduction of masculinity,' they 'facilitate and accentuate enactments of hegemonic masculinity.' Hegemonic masculinity refers to the idealized and valorized male, to the most honoured way of being a man. It accentuates male dominance, heterosexism, whiteness, violence, and competition and is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities. In recent years, adolescent male crime and young men in custody have been the focus of public anger and of othering, rendering invisible some of the vulnerabilities incarcerated boys sometimes exhibit" (Cesaroni, Alyi).
Cerasoni and Alyi's text fits within the larger debate because it brings up the impact that PIC has on the personalities and interpersonal relationships among imprisoned male youth as a whole. Numerous forms of bullying, victimization and conflicts among youth inmates prevails in youth facilities--which takes a toll on the self-perception and defense mechanisms of the youth prisoners--seeing that they are likely to become more aggressive, defensive and much more guarded to fend for themselves in prison and even after they are released. It is also mentioned that men's prisons constitute as a key site for the expression and manifestation of toxic masculinity. Male dominance, heterosexism, whiteness, violence, and competition are accentuated in men's prisons--which also has an impact on youth masculinity, as these factors will also come into play in their environment and perception of themselves and other youth inmates as it does for their adult counterparts.
Racial profiling further perpetuates white supremacy and the subordination of people of color. For instance, "People of colour living in disadvantaged urban communities have been shown to be the disproportionate recipients of both proactive policing strategies and various forms of police misconduct. As a consequence, a growing body of research has begun to examine the relationship between blacks’ experiences with the police and their perceptions of police legitimacy" (Brunson).
Young men of color are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses at a much higher rate than white men are albeit them being non-violent offenses and violent crimes currently being at an all-time low. Police officers tend to wander about and arrest people in neighborhoods of color than white neighborhoods. Black people are disproportionately imprisoned for committing crimes that whites commit at approximately the same rate. The stakes are much higher for people of color regardless of the crime or offense, even though the mass incarceration of black people gives off the illusion that they commit more crimes and pose a threat to society more than whites as a whole do. For instance, the sentences for possession of crack tends to be much higher than that of cocaine-- even though they are essentially the same substance.
Policies and legal actions put into place as a result of the war on drugs included mandatory minimum prison sentences and an increase in the number of police in communities and neighborhoods that happen to be primarily black. The product of these actions were that a much larger amount of blacks and other people of color were being arrested and imprisoned for extended periods of time for crimes they may or may not have committed due to the increased presence of police in black neighborhoods and stigmas of blacks doing drugs more than whites, albeit the fact that studies have proven that blacks and whites commit drug offenses at roughly equal and average levels. A statistic from The Human Rights Watch states that in seven states, 90% of drug offenders sent to prison consist of solely African-Americans. Due to the lack of a legitimate way to determine whether or not someone is a drug offender, police take advantage of their indoctrinated institutionalized racism and microagressions and determine who to arrest based on racist stigmas established such that the odds are not in favor of people of color.
Sentences for people of color are, for a fact, much harsher than that of white people--regardless of severity of the crime or whether or not the detained person is guilty. In many cases, the Supreme Court has even ruled that police can racially discriminate civilians and that these civilians who has their rights violated cannot sue if they experienced the wrath and injustices of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and unreasonable arrests.
The racialization of crime plays a key role in the systemic oppression of black youth and the mass incarceration of them in the PIC. Due to the colorblindness that is commonplace in modern America, it is much more facile for the PIC and the system to get away with continuing to racialize crime and stigmatize blacks and other people of color.
"The criminal justice system provides a convenient vehicle for physically maintaining the old legally enforced color lines as African Americans are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised, and imprisoned. The criminal justice system and its culmination in PIC also continues to guarantee the perpetual profits from the forced labor of inmates, now justifying their slavery as punishment for crime. Finally, the reliance on the criminal system provides the colorblind racist regime the perfect set of codes to describe racialized patterns of alleged crime and actual punishment without ever referring to race. There is no discussion of race and racism; there is only public discourse about crime, criminals, gangs, and drug-infested neighborhoods. This color-bind conflagration of crime with race is, in addition, insidious in its dis- honesty and indirect effects" (Brewer).
It is evident that the war on drugs is, rather, the war on people of color, the rise of the age of mass incarceration, and the fanning of the flames of indoctrinated racism that plays an essential role in all aspects of American society and those who inhabit it.
Social death—when a certain group of people is outcasted—ensures a life filled with detriment for convicts—especially black youth convicts. “PIC serves as a profit center for politicians, corporations, and PIC lobbyists, and serves as a modern form of slavery where people of color are the main targets. PIC is one of the most prevent signs of America being far from post-racial and racism is far from being eradicated, it just became more subtle. PIC is a prime example of the concept of social death, where an ex-felon is excluded and rejected from society and oftentimes end up back in prison. It poses unique challenges and consequences to people of color, seeing that even when released, former convicts are still subject to invisible punishment such as being stripped of voting rights and housing rights.
An end to the war on drugs would significantly reduce the impact of mass incarceration. Nonviolent drug offenders would be released from prisons, minimizing the prison population, and other measures could be taken to deal with nonviolent drug offenders and other nonviolent offenders. More rehab centers can be built and strengthened for addicts that need them, as well as reform programs that assist addicts in overcoming their addictions and/or safely consuming their substances with medical supervision—similar to what is done in Portugal, where all drugs are decriminalized and the drug mortality rate is currently among the lowest in the world. In order for the war on drugs to come to an end, all drugs must be decriminalized on a federal level and legal in certain amounts, drug abusers must be seen as patients worthy of rehab as opposed to criminals that should be locked up.
Another potential solution to the devastating effects of mass incarceration is to allow former convicts to be able to vote, receive housing and jobs without being discriminated against albeit their criminal record—this would also assist in removing the stigma of being a convict and would influence our society to be more empathetic of those that were previously incarcerated as opposed to outcasting them.
More programs can be created for convicts and non-convict citizens to engage in community service and other activities together, which would eliminate some of the fear people have towards convicts and would help individuals bond over their common humanity.