In her bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander makes a poignant case about how mass incarceration is eroding the social fabric of our society without yielding any of the positive results it claims to be pursuing. In a recent interview with FRONTLINE, Alexander discussed how the war on drugs has created a system of mass incarceration and its impact on American society.
Statistics paint a bleak portrait of the decimation caused by mass incarceration in the United States, and numbers prove that the war on drugs has not only been unsuccessful but negatively impacted nearly every aspect of American life that it was meant to improve. While the crime rate in the United States in lower than the international norm, its incarceration rate ranges from 6 to 10 times higher than other countries. This insanely high rate of incarceration has led to a system that now takes freedom away from more African Americans than were enslaved in 1850 and simultaneously prevents more African American men from voting than who were disenfranchised 1870.
According to Alexander, this system of control and oppression has decimated entire communities by breaking up families and destroying any hope of economic or social sustainability. This impact is felt not just while someone is under control of the prison system but even after they are released. Many people with criminal records struggle with employment and being able to function as fully contributing member of society which creates a cycle of reincarceration that many never escape. Recidivism is also fueled by the number of people who are sent back to prison for probation and parole violations. For example, there were more people in prison for these types of violations than were in prison for all reasons in 1980 by the year 2000. This means that there are more people who are put back in prison after serving time than the total number of people even put in prison in the first place.
Mass incarceration more severely affects communities where a large percentage of the population is impacted. Communities with large concentrations of offenders generally struggle with providing job opportunities and housing because the criminal records of its members prevent them from working and being able to obtain steady housing. Alexander points out that it is this economic struggle that destroys the social fabric of a community. As people turn to drugs to numb out from the pain of living in such depraved social conditions or as a means of income, the cycle of the drug war continues to ravage black communities in a way that other communities are not impacted. Drug policy and mass incarceration must be addressed before entire generations become victim to a vicious cycle of inequality and private prison profits.