Michelle Alexander: “A System of Racial and Social Control”


Tell me what effects locking up so many people from one small community has on that community and what horizons and possibilities it then presents to the youth coming up in that community.

Some scholars have actually argued that the term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer, because it implies that this phenomenon of incarceration is something that affects everyone, or most people, or is spread evenly throughout our society, when the fact is it’s not at all.
Mass incarceration in the United States isn’t a phenomenon that affects most. It’s concentrated in extremely small pockets, communities defined almost entirely by race and class, and in these communities it’s not just one out of 10 who serve time behind bars. No, often one out of three are likely to do time in prison.

And in communities of hyperincarceration that can be found in inner-city communities, in [Washington], D.C., in Chicago, in New York — the list goes on — you can go block after block and have a hard time finding any young man who has not served time behind bars, who has not yet been arrested for something.

And in these communities where incarceration has become so normalized, when it becomes part of the normal life course for young people growing up, it decimates those communities. It makes the social networks that we take for granted in other communities impossible to form. It makes thriving economies nearly impossible to create. It means that young people growing up in these communities imagine that prison is just part of their future. It’s just part of what happens to you when you grow up.

And the behavior of the police in many of these communities only reinforces it as they stop, frisk, search people no matter what they’re doing, whether they’re innocent or guilty. It sends this message that you’re going to jail one way or another no matter what you do, whether you stay in school or you drop out, or if you follow the rules or you don’t. You’re going to jail just like your uncle, just like your father, just like your brother, just like your neighbor. You, too, are going to jail. It’s part of your destiny.

And it affects one’s mindset. It affects people emotionally. It’s growing up not knowing and forming meaningful relationships with their relatives, their parents. But it’s also devastating for people who come out and want to do the right thing by their family and aren’t able to find jobs and support them.

I can’t tell you how many young fathers I have met who want nothing more than to be able to support their kids, maybe get married one day, but they have no hope of ever being able to find a job, [no] hope of doing anything else than cycling in and out of jail.
So we’ve decimated these communities, and we’ve destroyed all hopes of anything like the American dream. …

You could look at the numbers and say, OK, crime rates are at historic lows in the United States; incarceration rates are at historic highs — great, it works. Locking all these people up has bought crime rates down. So if you view this as the great prison experiment, as an effort to eradicate crime, has it been successful?

Many people imagine that mass incarceration actually works because crime rates are relatively low now, so hasn’t this worked? Hasn’t this been a grand success story?
The answer is no. We have decimated millions of people’s lives, locked up and locked out millions of people, but in the places where the war on drugs has been waged with the greatest intensity, places where we have locked up the most people, gone on the most extraordinary incarceration binges, crime rates remain high and have actually increased.

You take communities like Chicago, New Orleans and in this neighborhood in Kentucky where the drug war has been waged with just extraordinary, merciless intensity and incarceration rates have soared as crime rates have soared. When you step back and actually look at the data on crime and incarceration, you don’t see a neat picture of incarceration rates climbing as crime rates are declining. No, in fact in many of the places where crime rates have declined the most, incarceration rates have fallen the most. …
In places like Chicago, in New Orleans, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, where crime rates have been the most severe, incarceration has proved itself to be an abysmal failure as an answer to the problems that need to be addressed.

[There] seems to be something almost counterintuitive going on here, that once you start locking up too many people, you can actually start to destroy the social fabric of a community to the point where it creates the conditions for crime rather than prevents crime, which one would assume was in some people’s minds the point of incarceration.

One might assume that the more incarceration you have, the less crime you would have. The research actually shows, though, that quite the opposite is the case once you reach a certain tipping point.

When you begin to incarcerate such a large percentage of the population, the social fabric begins to erode. … When you reach a certain tipping point with incarceration, crime rates rise, because the community itself is being harmed by the higher levels of imprisonment. It can no longer function in a healthy manner. Incarceration itself becomes the problem rather than the solution. …

More than half of the people locked up in the community we’re focused on are locked up for selling drugs. Does locking up people selling drugs stop the drug trade in a neighborhood?

… Since the war on drugs was declared, there has been an exponential increase in drug arrests and convictions in the United States. Between 1985 and 2000, more than two-thirds of the increase in the federal population and more than half of the increased state prison population was due to drug convictions alone.

Drug convictions have increased more than 1,000 percent since the drug war began. To get a sense of how large a contribution the war on drugs has made to mass incarceration, think of it this way: There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses then were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.

Does it work?

Arresting people for minor drug offenses in this drug war does not reduce drug abuse or drug-related crime. It is common sense and conventional wisdom that if you arrest one drug dealer, there will be another dealer on the street within hours to replace him. …

We have seen that today, 40 years after the drug war was declared, illegal drugs in many respects are cheaper and more readily available than they were at the time the drug war was declared. It’s difficult these days to find politicians who will openly defend the drug war on the grounds that it’s actually worked or that we are any closer to winning it than we were 40 years ago. And yet the war goes on.

It goes on and on, and every day people are arrested for minor drug offenses, branded criminals and felons, and then locked away and then relegated to permanent second-class status. Simply arresting people for drug crimes [does] nothing to address the serious problems of drug abuse and drug addiction that exist in this country.

The war goes on, as you said, but there are efforts underway in various states … to start to change things. … The aim is to reduce the jail population to save money. The idea in principle is to pump that money back into treatment and, in theory, things that will help prevent crime rather than exacerbate it. Could you talk to me about what is good about these initiatives underway in various states but also about their limitations?

It’s encouraging that in states like Kentucky and Ohio and in many other states around the country, legislation has been passed reducing the amount of time that minor, nonviolent drug offenders spend behind bars. It’s a step, a positive step in the right direction.

The concern, though, is that these reforms are motivated primarily because of money, fiscal concerns. State budgets have been struggling to meet basic expenses for prisons, [and] these bloated prison budgets have created a situation where politicians either have to ask taxpayers to pay up, pony up more money, raise taxes, or downsize our prisons somewhat.

And because these reforms have been motivated primarily out of concern about tax dollars rather than out of genuine concern about the communities that have been decimated by mass incarceration, people who have been targeted in this drug war and their families, the reforms don’t go nearly far enough.

We may reduce the size of prison population in some states somewhat by reducing the length of time some people spend behind bars, but as long as people, when they’re released from prison, still face legal discrimination in employment and housing, are still denied food stamps, are still denied financial aid and access to education to improve themselves, they’ll be back. That revolving door will continue, and they may stay for a shorter period of time, but that castelike system that exists will remain firmly intact.

“By the year 2000, there were more people incarcerated just for probation and parole violations than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.”

If we don’t do something to reform our probation and parole systems and turn them into systems that are actually designed to support people’s meaningful re-entry in society rather than simply ensnare people once again into the system, we can continue to expand the size of our prison population simply by continuing to revoke people’s probation and parole and keep that revolving door swinging.
In fact, the problems associated with our probation and parole system became so severe that by the year 2000, there were more people incarcerated just for probation and parole violations than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.

So without major, drastic, large-scale change, this system will continue to function much in its same form. The question is whether we have the political will to do what is required.
If we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and get-tough movement really kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are behind bars today. More than a million people who are currently employed by the criminal justice system would need to find a new line of work.
Most new prison constructions employ predominantly white rural communities, communities that are struggling themselves economically, communities that have come to view prisons as their source of jobs, their economic base. Those prisons would have to close down.

Private prison companies now listed on the New York Stock Exchange would be forced to watch their profits vanish if we do away with the system of mass incarceration.

This system is now so deeply rooted in our social, political and economic structure, it’s not going to just fade away, downsize out of sight with a little bit of tinkering of margins. No, it’s going to take a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness, … and that is going to be a change of mind, a change of heart that will be a hard one, but it’s necessary if we’re ever going to turn this system around.


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