Affirmative: Mass Incarceration is the New Racial Oppression


Two weeks ago, I posted a response to lawmakers and citizens who think that prisoners shouldn’t be given the chance to further their education while they serve time in jail. These people seem to think that prisoners do not deserve such opportunities to rehabilitate themselves at the expense of the taxpayer, using the label “criminals” as if it speaks to an inherent character trait of prisoners and ex-cons. This argument struck a nerve with me because it highlights one of the fundamental problems with America’s system of mass incarceration: It creates a class of people—predominantly nonwhite and working class—who are seen as tainted and inferior by the rest of society. Such discrimination extends to the idea that former prisoners are unworthy of basic equal treatment under the law. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding their incarceration, ex-felons in many states lose basic civil rights forever, such as voting for the government that is supposed to represent them. Even those who serve time for misdemeanors, or who are simply arrested but never jailed, are unable to shake the stigma thanks to public databases accessible to employers and others. Because former prisoners are overwhelmingly low-income minorities, this just feeds back into the cycle of economic and social deprivation that contributes to the prison system in the first place.

In 2012, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander wrote a book, “The New Jim Crow,” exploring the roots and implications of what she aptly calls, “this new caste system.” In an interview with Democracy Now, she states, “Today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped, yet again, in a criminal justice system which is treating them like commodities, like people who are easily disposable.” Alexander explains how poor people of color are more frequently targeted for arrests, and often can’t pay the associated fine, leading to more arrests. Even if this kind of treatment doesn’t lead to jail time, legal discrimination based on arrest records can destroy employment opportunities and candidacy for housing assistance. Comparing this system to the oppression caused first by black slavery, and then by racist Jim Crow laws, Alexander says, “People find themselves trapped in a permanent second-class status, and struggling to survive.”

Outsized punishments for drug-related offenses are also a key factor in the cycle that keeps underserved minority communities from being able to move forward. The “war on drugs” has turned out to just be a systematic war on poor communities of color, where people are branded with criminal sentences, and then legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives.

Alexander speaks to the stigma against prisoners in general, and the idea that they invariably, universally “deserve” this punishing fate, regardless of any other factors. “Those who are targeted and who find themselves behind bars are blamed, and said, ‘Well, it’s your fault. You brought all of this on yourself.”‘ This social mindset is coupled with a pervasive belief in the moral high-standing of law enforcement, despite the outrageous amount of corruption being uncovered in police departments.

Clearly, turning our justice system from an ineffective, punitive establishment into a fair, redemptive, useful system is going to take a deep examination of our national psychology. Because right now, whether consciously or not, we delegate humanity as if it’s a privilege, granting less of it to poor people of color, especially those with a criminal record.

P.S. Earlier this month, Virginia followed the example of several other states by making it illegal for state government employers to ask job applicants about their criminal history. It’s not much, but it’s an example of the kinds of things we need to do across the board.



The Connection between Mental Health and Incarceration

Anyone who wants to help reform America’s broken prison system needs to pay attention to the nation’s psychologists.  “The prison population has rates of mental illness at least three times the national average,” reports the American Psychological Association. The connection makes sense: we have a serious lack of community mental health services in this country, and people who are left untreated are more likely to get in trouble with the law. Incarceration is not going to help these people. Psychologists have been studying the background of criminal behavior for decades, and theirs is a critical perspective if we want to actually lower crime rates AND lower prisoner rates.


According to an article by Health Affairs, it states that “across the nation, individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility and 40 percent of individuals with a severe mental illness will have spent some time in their lives in either jail, prison, or community corrections.” It should be in our interest to provide inmates with the appropriate treatment because if mentally ill offenders receive the appropriate treatment they would be less likely to offend again. If they do not receive treatment, the harsh and violent environment of prison is likely to make their illness worse, which could leave them more susceptible to commit further offenses once they are released from prison. The justice system duty, of course, is to punish the offender but also to reduce the risk the offender poses to society. For some offenders, mental health treatment is more likely to achieve this than prison.

P.S. As a society, we should provide any sick person with the treatment they need. Healthcare is a basic and fundamental right that should not be abridged. But, our country’s lack of mental health treatment options is such an extreme problem that jails actually function as some of the nation’s biggest mental health providers. Listen to this NPR story from America’s largest jail, in Cook County, Illinois:


Refutation: To Opponents of Public Funding for Prison Education

A year ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed instituting college degree programs in state prisons, using taxpayer money. Although a few decades ago this was a fairly common practice around the country, it died out after a 1994 law stating that federal Pell Grants could not be awarded to prison inmates.

But Cuomo was quickly forced to drop his proposal after a backlash from NY citizens and legislators. Three of New York’s Congressional Representatives even introduced a bill called “Kids Before Cons” opposing this kind of funding, saying: “It’s an insult to hardworking taxpayers who follow the law that they should be expected to provide free college degrees for convicted criminals. […] Our children should be placed above convicted criminals.”

This kind of us-versus-them rhetoric exemplifies one of the biggest psychological contributors to America’s out of control prison system. The bill operates on the assumption that “taxpaying citizens” and “convicted criminals” are mutually exclusive; two disparate classes of human that never converge. There are two problems with this ridiculous logic:

1. It betrays the American obsession with a smug and abstract idea of “punishment”— and this is at the expense of actual rehabilitation, which is obviously the goal for any prisoner not serving a lifetime sentence (AKA most prisoners). Prison education and other forms of rehabilitation were shunned in the late 20th Century; but now we know that they dramatically reduce rates of repeat incarceration by helping to prepare inmates for a viable life after prison. Indeed, a 2013 joint report by the Department of Justice and the RAND Corporation found that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.” The connected decrease in criminal behavior would obviously make the public safer (which is the whole point of paying for prisons in the first place). And these returns on investment are extremely economical: by paying a small amount to educate a prisoner now, taxpayers are more likely to avoid future re-incarceration costs that would be four times the amount of tuition.

2. Plenty of convicted criminals have been hardworking taxpayers at some point in life, and plenty of taxpayers have committed crimes for which they have gone unpunished. Labelling people as “either/or” is incorrect and dangerous, furthering social stratification that oppresses underprivileged populations and holds them disproportionately accountable for legal infractions. In previous posts we talked about how arrests and sentencing in this country are corrupt with institutionalized biases that benefit wealthier white people over people of color.                           An incredible example of this is the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, which was created in the outrage following December’s court decision to not bring charges in the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The white users of this hashtag would admit crimes that they had committed, ranging from minor to moderate, that they hadn’t been punished for due to racial privilege. Sickening examples poured out, opening America’s eyes to the ugly truth of law enforcement today: police looking the other way when a white person committed a crime, only to arrest and harshly convict a person of color who committed the same or similar acts. One gets off scot-free, a righteous “law-abiding citizen” fit to be outraged by the idea of paying for inmate education; the other’s life is ruined, and his/her status as a human being is considered unworthy of repair.

The divisive rhetoric of NY’s prison education opponents not only makes no sense when compared with the evidence; it is also extremely harmful in the way it categorizes and ranks members of society, ignoring issues of biased treatment and scoffing at the redemptive purpose of incarceration. Criminality is already a subjective spectrum with roots in social inequality, and any effort to decrease that inequality through education is a clear-cut step in the right direction for everyone involved.


Cuomo’s proposal:

“Kids Before Cons” Act:“kids-cons-act

RAND and DOJ Report:


New Library for DC Jail Inmates

This is great new library program in the DC jail, that also hopes to assist inmates in getting their GEDs. This smartly addresses a big contributor to criminal activity (dropping out of school). It should also lower the rate of recidivism by giving inmates a better chance of gaining employment upon their release. Check out the video for more details:!/news/local/DC-Jail-Adds-Library-for-Inmates/295112841

Bio: Carly Groff

I’m a senior majoring in Communication, hoping to do some good in the world one way or another. I took a few years off from college to intern, work, travel, and participate in a yearlong AmeriCorps program. I’m passionate about many social justice issues, and have participated in several organized actions and other protest endeavors. In the future I hope to make a living doing something that builds community, uplifts marginalized people, and/or fosters understanding in place of conflict.

I care about the issue of improving America’s prison system because its brokenness infects and reflects every other aspect of our society. Along with many others in positions of social privilege, my eyes have really been opened over the past year to the extent of the injustices perpetrated by our bigoted and increasingly militarized “justice” system. Our incarceration patterns are a horrific sham of legal ethics, as shown most potently by the disproportionately high sentencing rate of minority males. Overall, we waste precious resources on a system that doesn’t even work to do what it is supposed to do (AKA make our communities more stable, peaceful, and resilient). It often does just the opposite, taking broken people and breaking them down further—which simply fosters recidivism, resentment, and poverty that keeps future generations at risk for landing in prisons. American incarceration must be reformed.