Cruel but not unusual: the economics and inherent racism of mass incarceration

Artists: Dey Hernández, Jorge Díaz Ortiz and Sylvia Hernández

By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)

Mass incarceration in the United States is a crime against humanity. It disproportionately ruins the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. It wastes human potential. It destabilizes neighborhoods and destroys communities. We all pay dearly for it, in human as well as economic terms. Both at its roots and in its practices and policies, mass incarceration as practiced by the United States is an egregious abuse of human rights.

Prison system costs now account for one out of every 15 discretionary dollars in states’ general budgets. Criminal justice is the second fastest growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and 90% of that spending goes to prisons. The nation wastes trillions of dollars on an ineffective and unjust criminal justice system. Every dollar spent on incarceration is money not spent on other critical needs. We have more effective tools for preventing and responding to crime than our prisons.

If you are Black, Brown or Indigenous in the United States, jail and prison are traps targeted at you and waiting to be sprung shut. You have a high likelihood of being incarcerated. Race and class play a critical role in who is arrested, who is tried and convicted, who receives the harshest sentences – and who is able to successfully navigate the challenges of post-incarceration life. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Latine people are 2.5 times as likely. For Black men in their thirties, about one in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day. In 2019, the imprisonment rate for African American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000). Latina women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (63 vs. 48 per 100,000).

The graphic below illustrates these facts in brutal detail. Missing from this chart is data on the incarceration of Indigenous and Asian people. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Indigenous people experience a rate of one felony conviction for every 200 Indigenous people age 18 or older. The rate for whites was one conviction per 300 adults; for Blacks, one per 51 adults. Asians reflected the lowest rate, about one felony conviction for every 600 Asian adults.

Source: The Sentencing Project

Class is also a factor in incarceration, but class is not as significant a predictor of incarceration as is race. While it’s critical that we explore the relationship between incarceration and poverty, it’s not so helpful to suggest that mass incarceration is driven only by class “and not race.” Racial biases in the criminal justice system don’t only apply to poor people, according to research from Harvard, Stanford, and the U.S. Census Bureau. “Black men raised in the top one percent – by millionaires – were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000,” The New York Times reported.

This helps explain why even Black boys from affluent families run a greater risk than their white peers of ending up poor. The likelihood of incarceration is higher for Black people than for white people at every economic level. Incarceration also has a crippling effect on wealth accumulation, ensuring long-lasting damage to individuals, families, and communities of color.

The highest rate of incarceration in the world

Mass incarceration affects millions of people in the United States. The data show that 45% of people in the U.S. have had an immediate family member incarcerated. The incarceration of an immediate family member was most prevalent for Blacks (63%) but common for whites (42%) and Hispanics (48%) as well. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but 20% of the world’s incarcerated people.

When these facts are considered in the context of human rights, it is clear that the mass incarceration crisis in the United States is an egregious offense. A provision of both national and international law (Article 7 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is that people should be equal before the law, i.e. not subjected to unequal treatment, especially due to their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or other factors.

The United States locks up more of its people than any other nation. There are 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails – a 700% increase over the last 50 years. Another 4.4 million people are under some form of probation or parole supervision, more than twice as many people as are incarcerated. In the last 40 years, the number of people under community supervision has increased three-fold.

Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. Starting in the 1980s, the “War on Drugs” resulted in an increase in incarceration for drug offenses from 40,900 in 1980 to 430,926 in 2019. Mandatory sentencing laws increased the length of stay even for low-level offenders. Fully half of the people in federal prisons are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. In state prisons and local jails, most incarcerated people are locked up because of drugs. Most are small-time dealers and have no prior convictions for violent offenses. The rate of imprisonment for drug offenses has risen 900% since 1980.

The costs of incarceration – lost earnings, adverse health effects and the damage to the families of the incarcerated – are estimated at up to three times the direct costs associated with building, maintaining, staffing, and operating prisons and jails. This brings the total burden of our criminal justice system to $1.2 trillion. The misery cannot be calculated strictly in dollars. The enormous harm inflicted by the mass incarceration of Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people is measured in human suffering, destabilization of communities and millions of damaged lives.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Money spent on incarceration is money not spent on education, healthcare, social services, science, art, infrastructure or any of the myriad of unmet needs in the United States. The effects are greatest on communities that are least able to see a diminution of services – those at the bottom of the economic and social order. In the United States, that means Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people.

Many of the effects of mass incarceration are obvious to even the casual observer: men and women removed from their homes, families and communities; families broken by forced separation; people rendered virtually unemployable by incarceration; and the exploitation of incarcerated people by the prison system, which forces them to labor within a system of modern-day slavery, earning only a few dollars per day.

The social impacts of incarceration

The short answer to the question of what positive effects incarceration has on U.S. society is that incarceration is largely negative. Incarceration has a heavy negative impact on the people who are imprisoned and their families. It is costly in both monetary and social terms. It does little to deter crime. In fact, incarceration is less effective than probation (which involves offenders being placed under court supervision and usually also required to seek treatment for substance use, undergo anger management training, find and keep a job and other rehabilitative efforts).

Impacts on employment

Incarceration removes young adults from their families and communities at a critical time in their lives. At a point when their peers are pursuing training, education and careers; starting families; and finding their places in the world, hundreds of thousands of young Black, Brown and Indigenous men and women find themselves literally put on ice – locked up and locked out of society. Upon release, they face a multitude of difficulties, such as requirements to pay court costs and restitution. Failure to pay can result in revocation of parole. Finding a job is challenging. Many employers refuse to hire applicants with felony convictions. Some states prohibit people with felony convictions from holding any state license – including licenses for barbers, cosmetologists, real estate inspectors, undertakers, many healthcare professions and more. These factors make it very difficult for formerly incarcerated people to re-enter society; they create a vicious cycle in which, once arrested and convicted, people have an increased rate of recidivism (return to prison).

Unemployment is high among formerly incarcerated people. A study by the Brookings Institution found that only 55% of former prisoners had any earnings in the year following release, and of those, only 20% (or 11% of the total) earned more than the federal minimum wage (roughly $15,000). There are stark racial differences in the likelihood of being unemployed, as shown in the chart below. The greatest difference in post-incarceration unemployment rates compared to the general population is for Black women – a difference of 37.2%. White men faced the weakest incarceration penalty with a difference of 14.1%.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Socioeconomic class plays a role in who goes to prison and how long they remain there. More than 50% of the people in county and municipal jails have not been convicted of a crime; they are locked up because they cannot afford bail. In many jurisdictions, by posting bail you become ineligible for the services of a public defender – a particularly cruel form of double jeopardy that forces people to decide between being unrepresented in a fight for their lives versus rotting in jail for years while awaiting trial.

People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor. Two-thirds detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest. Incarceration further contributes to poverty by creating employment barriers, reducing earnings and decreasing economic security through criminal debt, fees and fines, according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This makes access to public benefits difficult or impossible, disrupting communities where formerly incarcerated people reside.

Impacts on children

The impact of incarceration on children of incarcerated people is enormous. One of every 12 U.S. children, more than 5.7 million kids under age 18, have experienced parental incarceration at some point during their lives. The criminalization of addiction is a leading cause of referrals of families to Child Protective Services and often to the removal of children from their families of origin. Studies indicate that there is substantial overlap between parents involved in the child welfare and substance use treatment systems.

Over the past quarter-century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female incarcerated population stands over seven times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

It is no coincidence that the school districts with the highest levels of incarceration have the lowest levels of school performance and matriculation to higher education. They also have a high percentage of students who are in state-mandated or informal (e.g., with a relative or friend) out-of-home placement. In school, foster children function at a level that is below average and below their capacity.

Impacts on families

Families are hugely impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. The costs of bail, legal representation, and if incarcerated, the costs of phone calls, prison visits (which often require travel of hundreds of miles) and commissary funds (for purchase of food, personal hygiene items, writing supplies, stamps, books, fans, and sometimes socks and underwear) are almost completely borne by family members – most of whom have low incomes. In most states, the costs of commissary, phone and other paid services represents a significant source of income for the jail or prison. The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit criminal-justice think tank, estimates that commissary companies earn $1.6 billion per year. Many jails and prisons have transitioned from in-person visitation to a video system which can cost up to $40 for a 30-minute “visit.”

Illness and injuries

Deaths and serious injuries are common in prison. In 2018, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths (not including the 25 people executed in state prisons) – the highest number on record since the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) began collecting mortality data in 2001. Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative.

The latest data from the BJS on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba. Prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous – a finding that should not be ignored. Thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness – but an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide and drug and alcohol intoxication. People in prison exhibit a high burden of chronic and non-communicable diseases (e.g., hypertension, diabetes and asthma), as well as communicable diseases (e.g., hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis), mental health problems, and substance use disorders. More than 14% of people in jails reported injuries stemming from accidents or assaults that occurred while incarcerated.

Incarcerated women face additional challenges in receipt of healthcare. While the number of incarcerated males has steadily declined, the number of incarcerated females continues to rise. Women have gender-specific health needs which correctional facilities address poorly. Rates of substance use disorder, prior trauma and abuse, mental illness, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are high among incarcerated women, higher than those of incarcerated men, and these factors intersect with various adverse social determinants of health that characterize their pre-incarceration lives. Moreover, the majority of incarcerated women are younger than 45 and therefore have specific reproductive health needs.

The Coronavirus pandemic has strongly affected people who are incarcerated. There is little to no capacity to practice social distancing or isolate symptomatic people inside jails and prisons. As of April 16, 2021, more than 661,000 incarcerated people and staff have been infected with Coronavirus and at least 2,990 have died, according to The New York Times. Incarcerated people are infected by Coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, according to research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 2020. The reported death rate of inmates (39 deaths per 100,000) is also higher than the national rate (29 deaths per 100,000).


Although it is preferable to have the quasi-freedom that parole offers, the parole system remains part of the carceral state and does not function to restore or rehabilitate people. Often parole is another burden that must be borne by the very people it is alleged to help and their families. People on parole are required to participate in programs such as drug or alcohol treatment, even though those programs often come with a price tag and are increasingly unavailable due to the Coronavirus pandemic. They are forbidden to associate with people who have a felony conviction, which might mean that they cannot live with a family member or associate and therefore must find housing that they may not be able to afford. They often have curfews that can make it difficult to get and hold the few jobs that are available to people with felonies. And they must make restitution and pay court costs – or face a return to life behind bars. This is a feedback loop whereby one’s status as being under correctional supervision at release from prison leads to increased debt, which in turn increases the chance of remaining under supervision during the first year out.

Mass incarceration exacts a high toll upon people in the U.S. Racial disparities in incarceration disproportionately violate the human rights of Black, Brown and Indigenous people. Elomba Ngabo of Decarcerate Lousiana, a social change movement working for restorative justice in and out of the prison system, states:

“If you think about the definition of genocide (deliberately killing members of a group, inflicting serious mental and bodily harm to a group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group), and you think about the effect of the slavery exception clause (of the 13th Amendment) and the racialized politics infused into the War on Drugs policy and tough-on-crime laws that led to mass incarceration and mass separation of families in Black communities, I mean, what can I say? Ain’t that genocide?”

We concur. It is time to end the carceral system of the United States.


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This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report