Mass Incarceration, Democracy and Freedom

“100 years later the Negro is not free.” 43 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words in front of the Lincoln Memorial as he called for an end to racism. But 43 years later the Negro is still not free. The United States has an incarceration problem. Although it represents only 4.4 percent of the world population, it holds about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners (Walmsley 2013). What is even more unsettling about imprisonment in this country is the racial makeup of its prison population. Blacks make up 37.7 percent of the prison population (Bureau of Prisons 2015) but only 13.2 percent of the general population (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention 2013). This disproportionate incarceration rate has uniquely contributed to the political subordination of the African American community. Through the mass removal of populations, the United States criminal justice system has been crafted to withhold the full rights of citizenship from the Black community.

Political freedom manifests itself through action and appearance in the public sphere. Thus, incarcerated persons are denied political freedom due to their physical removal from society. In Between Past and Future, twentieth century German political theorist Hannah Arendt argues that politics are inconceivable without the existence of freedom. Freedom, according to Arendt, appears in interactions with others who are similarly liberated. This association then leads individuals to create political organizations. Arendt characterizes politics as the realm where “freedom is a worldly reality, tangible in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen.” (153). Only the accessible world has a place within the political. What makes actions accessible is the “presence of others before whom they can appear” (152). Thus, the purpose of politics is to maintain a space for freedom to appear.

This representation of politics is disastrous for incarcerated persons because very nature of incarceration is isolation. In 2002, Colombia professor Ernest Drucker measured the magnitude of the impact of mass imprisonment in New York between 1973 and 2002. He concluded that the incarceration of 150,000 young men from communities in New York was similar in scale to the loss of population due to “epidemics, wars and terrorist attacks” and had comparable impacts on the surviving community. Moreover, within prisons, African Americans are further isolated through solitary confinement. African Americans in New York represent 59 percent of the population detained in Supermax prisons. Thus, incarcerated African Americans are further stripped of the potential of political freedom through associations with their fellow inmates. Not only are incarcerated individuals physically isolated, the communities they leave behind become socially isolated form the larger public. A 2001 article by Todd Clear and Diana Rose provided evidence that as residents of disadvantaged communities become disillusioned with the political process, they become “less adept at operating as civic citizens and more removed from the civic community.” Mass incarceration is thus antithetical to black political self-determination because it strips the community of the ability to appear in the public sphere and creates social attitudes that make community members distrust their own political efficacy.

Incarceration concretely strips individuals of their citizenship through felon disenfranchisement. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, inmates are prohibited from voting while incarcerated. In 32 states, inmates are also disenfranchised when they are on probation or parole. In 14 states, inmates are disenfranchised for life (Sentencing Project 2015), (see Figure 1). This policy has dramatically shifted political power towards the white electoral population. Felon disenfranchisement has stripped the right to vote from 1 in every 13 African Americans (Sentencing Project 2015), thus, this policy has dramatically shifted political power towards the white electoral population. For example, Florida’s felon disenfranchisement policies affected the outcome of the 2000 presidential elections. Had that disenfranchised population been able to vote, Al Gore would have likely won Florida by thirty-one thousand votes (Alexander 221). Additionally, mass incarceration results in fewer Congressional seats for poor communities of color. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates populations by counting inmates as living where they are incarcerated rather than their original place of residence (Alexander 221). Thus, elected officials are siphoned from urban communities to rural ones where these prisons are typically located. Mass incarceration thus revokes or renders ineffectual the guarantees of citizenship.

Figure 1. Felony Disenfranchisement Restrictions by State, 2015


Source: Chung, J. (2014) Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer. Washington, D.C: The Sentencing Project.

Capital punishment permanently and irrevocably removes individuals from the public sphere. The race of the defendant plays a significant role in the chance of receiving the death penalty: African Americans have accounted for 35 percent of total executions since 1976 and 42 percent of people currently on death row (Death Penalty Information Center 2015). In 2000, the Department of Justice released a report indicating that the federal death penalty is used disproportionately against people of color. From 1995 to 2000, 80 percent of all cases recommended by the U.S. Attorneys to the Attorney General seeking the death penalty involved a defendant of color. After review still 72 percent of cases approved involved minority defendants (ACLU). The Department of Justice also revealed that the race of the victim significantly affects the chances of the defendant receiving the death penalty. U.S. Attorneys recommended the death penalty in 36 percent of cases with black defendants and non-black victims compared to only 20 percent when both the victim and the defendant were black (ACLU). The continued existence of capital punishment becomes even more unsettling when considering the high rate of erroneous death penalty sentences. One study estimates that 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent (Hannon 2014). Evidence of racial prejudice by judges and juror would suggest that these statistics would increase with regards to African Americans sentenced to the death penalty.

Targeted inequality in the effects of policies maintains the malevolence of the American criminal justice system. In her book Talking to Strangers, Harvard professor Danielle Allen argues that the nature of democracy requires sacrifices from citizens. Policies necessarily require trade offs, thus they will always benefit some citizens over others. The great irony is that democracy markets itself as a political system that has circumvented the problem of inequality. While the impossibility of a perfectly equal democracy seems evident, democracies are able to maintain this illusion of equality because the hope for those on the losing end of a particular policy is that the next policy will become the equalizer. Unfortunately, this too is one of the great lies of our political system. The policies that fuel the United States prison industrial complex capitalize on this inconsistency. The rhetoric surrounding United States drug policies, for example, emphasize societal well-being. However, there is significant evidence that those same policies disproportionately target racial minorities and the poor. Communities of color are targeted for surveillance and drug law enforcement at a rate that is not representative of the rates of the community’s drug use. African Americans comprise only 14% of regular drug users in the United States, yet are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses and 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes (Stevenson 2011). According to Allen, democracy was not built to “comprehend sacrifice, or the losses and disappointments people accept for the sake of maintaining the communal agreements that constitute legality.” (35) This disconnect between how the public is conditioned to conceptualizing policies and the policies’ actual human impact renders invisible the sacrifices of these communities.           Inequality in democracy, if left unaddressed, breeds distrust not only in political institutions but also in one’s fellow citizens. According to Allen, “democracy depends on the ability of citizens to submit their fates willingly to the hands of others.” (47) She argues that citizens can only trust the institution of democracy when they can see a positive relationship between their participation in democracy and their personal well-being. Each instance of political loss or perceived injustice breeds disappointment and resentment, which chip away at the “reservoirs of trust needed to sustain democratic life.” (47) Although no policy can garner equal benefits for all members of a society, trust in politics is thus impossible if certain groups are consistently the losers in political trade offs. The continued scapegoating of African Americans in the criminal justice system is evidence of the relationship between politics and trust. African Americans are more likely to disapprove of the police and the court system than whites. Evidence shows that people who live in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates strongly distrust the rule of law and see the workings of the state as “alien forces to be avoided rather than services to be employed” (Roberts 2004). Moreover, the lack of trust makes individuals less inclined to obey the law and makes victims of crimes less likely to seek help from law enforcement (Roberts 2004). Thus, mass incarceration undermines the foundations of trust necessary for the legitimacy of democracy.

The social and political spheres are inextricably linked. Allen argues, “Human life is full of rituals that initiate people into the symbol world, ideal, and political structure of their community.” (27) Rituals are the foundations of social arrangements, which in turn are the foundations of political structures. Through rituals individuals come “to know intimately central aspects of the overall form of his community by living through them.” (28) Thus, rituals connect individual lives to political concerns. The importance of rituals in politics further problematizes mass incarceration. By straining social networks, mass incarceration affects the maintenance of communities’ social norms. Disorganized communities have difficulty enforcing social norms because its members can not come to consensus on public values or methods of problem solving (Roberts 2004). This becomes another way that the system re-entrenches itself. By destabilizing incarcerated communities, mass incarceration reproduces the exact dynamics that sustain crime.

Figure 2. Video of  ‘My Life after 44 years in prison’

Additionally, one of the greatest impacts of mass incarceration is its effect on children with imprisoned parents. In 1999, the majority of state and federal prisoners reported having a child under age eighteen, and almost half had lived with their children prior to incarceration. Seven percent of black children had an incarcerated parent in 1999 compared to about 2 percent of all the nation’s children making them 9 times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children (Roberts 2004). Moreover, parental incarceration significantly increases the chances of that child’s future contact with the criminal justice system. One study found that having an incarcerated brother or male neighbor lead to a higher likelihood of a black male being incarcerated as an adult (Weaver 2010). Incarcerated individuals also tend to lose touch with family members. In a video directed by Elena Boffetta and Jenna Belhumeu , Otis Johnson, who was recently released from prison after 44 years describes how he lost contact with his family. Upon release, he found essentially alone in a world that he did not recognize (see Figure 2).  Allen’s emphasis on rituals would thus indicate that mass incarceration’s destruction of families detaches the personal from the political for African Americans thus damaging their political engagement.

Mass imprisonment affects values held by the entire society as it struggles to reconcile the discrepancy between the stated objectives of democracy and the effects of incarceration. As Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind caution, “Ultimately, a society in which mass imprisonment has become the norm is one in which questions of justice, fairness, and access to resources are being altered in ways hitherto unknown.” While social norm theory has traditionally been used to address the effect of mass incarceration on communities directly impacted, it can also be used to explain its detrimental influence on the general public. High incarceration rates among African Americans fuel the myth of their inherent criminality, which provides America with evidence that “these communities are not entitled to norms of citizenship ordinarily expected in our liberal democracy.” (Roberts 2008) Thus, mass incarceration distorts democracy by maintaining racial social attitudes that deprive African Americans of their worth.

43 years later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from his “I Have a Dream” speech still ring true, “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” (King, 1963) It is inconsistent with the nature of democracy for certain citizens to be systematically targeted as dispensable within politics. Thus, mass incarceration not only threatens the communities directly impacted, but also undermines the very foundations of democracy. Although racism is in many ways maintained by American institutions, those same institutions have the potential to be cites of liberation. From African-American slavery to Jim Crow laws, institutionalized racism in the United States has been undermined by its contradiction with the ideals of a democratic society. Thus, the principles of democracy can be used to challenge the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2010. Print.

“Black or African American Populations.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 July 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Clear, T. R., and D. R. Rose. “Incarceration and the Community: The Problem of Removing and Returning Offenders.” Crime & Delinquency 47.3 (2001): 335-51. Web.

Drucker, E. “Population Impact of Mass Incarceration Under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws: An Analysis of Years of Life Lost.” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine79.3 (2002): 434-35. Web.

“Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP Statistics: Inmate Race. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 24 Oct. 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Hannon, Elliot. “Big Data Study: 1 in 25 Given Death Penalty Sentence Are Likely Innocent.” Slate, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Mauer, Marc, and Meda Chesney-Lind. Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment. New York: New, 2002. Print.

My Life After 44 Years in Prsion. Dir. Elena Boffetta and Jenna Belhumeur. Perf. Otis Johnson. My Life after 44 Years in Prison. Al Jazeera, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

“Race and the Death Penalty.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

“Race and the Death Penalty.” Race and the Death Penalty. Death Penalty Information Center, 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Roberts, Dorothy E. “Constructing a Criminal Justice System Free of Racial Bias: An Abolitionist Framework.” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 39 (2008): 261-66. Web.

Roberts, Dorothy E. “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities.” Stanford Law Review 56 (2004): 1271-305. Web.

Stevenson, Bryan. Drug Policy, Criminal Justice and Mass Imprisonment. G. Working paper. Global Commission on Drug Policies, 24 Jan. 2011. Web.

Walmsley, Rom. World Prison Population List. Rep. International Centre for Prison Studies, 2013. Web.

Weaver, Vesla M.. “Unhappy Harmony: Accounting for Black Mass Incarceration in a “postracial” America”. Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Post-racist Era. Ed. Fredrick C. Harris and Robert C. Lieberman. Russell Sage Foundation, 2013. 215–256. Web.