History of Mass Incarceration 

Timeline of events

Follow the history of mass incarceration from past to present 

The School to prison pipeline

Gain insight into the pipeline that criminalizes America's youth

The War on Drugs

Learn about America's 40 year failed fight against drug usage 

Indigenous

mass incarceration

Learn the history of the indigenous community's relationship with the criminal justice system

Overview

When the Founding Fathers established the United States as a nation independent from Britain, they were also establishing a legal system that was distinct from the one they had experienced in England. That legal system was one that vested all power in the Crown, that was dominated by corruption, and that favored those who the government favored. The Founders wanted a justice system that guarded against government abuse, so they set out to make this the underlying principle of their new legal system, with 4 out of 10 of the first amendments to the Constitution serving to protect the rights of the accused. 

 

But the Founders did not live up to their own promises. Though 19th century America saw states that were attempting to administer humane and proportional punishment and establish practices that were novel in comparison with European policies, 19th century America also saw a commitment to slavery. Millions of people from Africa were systematically oppressed, dehumanized, and sold on the market. The 13th amendment appeared to outlaw slavery, but it left a gaping hole open, indicating that servitude is not allowed "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." This subtle phrase empowered and justified modern slavery for centuries to come. 

This legacy lives on today through mass incarceration. Prisons filled up throughout the 1800s and early 1900s with Black Americans and immigrants from Asia, South America, Africa, and Europe who were targets of racial prejudice. The stereotype of the Black man who raped white women dominated popular culture, with movies, plays, and literature perpetuating the idea that Black men were predators. Throughout the 20th century, Jim Crow  laws that enforced racial segregation designated Black Americans as second-class citizens and established a legal system that tipped the scale against Black defendants.

 

During World War II from 1942-1956, the American government ordered  the evacuation and internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans under the guise of a “national emergency” due to Japan’s status as an enemy nation during the War. 

 

The prison population began to grow in the 1970s, when politicians from both parties used fear and thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push increasingly punitive policies in response to a rise of drug use in the 1960s. 

 

In 1971, Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” He appealed to many Americans who conflated race with criminality and believed that the drug addiction epidemic was corrupting America and could be ultimately tied back to communities of color. As part of the war on Drugs, Nixon increased funding for drug-control agencies and proposed mandatory prison sentencing for drug crimes. In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration(DEA), a special police force committed to targeting illegal drug use and smuggling. 

 

However, the prison population skyrocketed during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Reagan reinforced and expanded Nixon’s War on Drug Policies, passing severe penalties for drug-related crimes in Congress and state legislatures which led to a massive increase in incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes. 

 

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. This law had devastating ramifications on communities of color, because it allocated  longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). When Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000, and when he left office eight years later, the prison population had doubled, to 627,000. This rise in incarceration hit communities of color hardest, yet drug usage did not go down. In fact, it increased by 3000% in America. 

 

Throughout the next few decades, incarceration grew both at the federal and state level. In Texas, the state incarceration rate quadrupled: In 1978, the state incarcerated 182 people for every 100,000 residents. By 2003, that figure was 710. 

 

In 1983, the privatization of prisons gave birth to the idea of the "prison industrial complex" 

when the Corrections Corporations of America(CCA) founded the first private prison. The prison industrial complex(PIC) becomes a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government andinstury that uses surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. The PIC allows companies ranging from retail stores like Victoria’s Secret to tech companies to construction contractors to profit off of the labor of prisoners In addition to earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces, the PIC helps earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians, increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions, and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

 

The American Legislative Exchange Council(ALEC) is a key stakeholder in the PIC, writing and proposing legislation that perpetuates and enables the system to continue through allowing companies to profit off of prisoners making $0.50 an hour and allowing these companies to unfairly compete with other companies that pay their workers wages at or above the minimum wage. 

 

In 2011, CCA's net worth was $1.4 billion and net income was $162 million. In this same year, The GEO Group had a net worth of $1.2 billion and net income of $78 million. Major corporations that profit off of the PIC today include McDonalds, Walmart, Starbucks, Spring, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Fidelity Investments, J.C Penny, Kmart, Airlines, and Avis. Find the full list of the 3,1000 companies that are invested in mass criminalization here

 

Beginning in 1993, several states and the federal government adopted forms of the “three strikes and you’re out” law, mandating severe prison sentences for third (and in some instances first and second) felony convictions, disproportionately criminalizing and incarcerating communities of color. The 1994 Crime Bill gave states money to perpetuate such policies, also increasing prison populations. 

 

In 2016, the Brennan Center examined convictions and sentences for the 1.46 million people behind bars nationally and found that fully 39 percent, or 576,000, were in prison without any public safety reason and could have been punished in a less costly and damaging way. 

 

Recently however, there has been progress in reducing mass incarceration, leading to a decrease in prison populations by about 10 percent. Racial disparities in the prison population have also fallen. Some states like Texas have led the way, undoing many of the harsh policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act(FSA), which reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1. States have seen their prison populations and crime rates decline simultaneously, although the current administration opposes significant criminal justice reform.

 

Unfortunately, it will still take decades to achieve incarceration rates appropriate to the current violent crime rate. While racial disparities are decreasing, the rate of incarceration for African Americans would only match whites after 100 years at the current pace.  


In today’s America, 1 out of 13 Black Americans are disenfranchised due to felony status. The US incarceration rate is nine times higher than Germany, eight times higher than Italy, and 15 times higher than Japan, and our country’s one-size-fits-all solution to crime continues to marginalize, criminalize, and dehumanize communities of color. By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and incarcerating people of color for minor offenses, the justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control and a modern form of slavery.