From Slavery to Mass Incarceration of African Americans

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The United States has more of its citizens incarcerated than any other nation in the world. (Washington Post) Mass Incarceration has steadily increased in the past 4 decades with the number of African Americans making up over half of the prison population. African Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than any other race. (NAACP) Research will show that African Americans have been targeted and mistreated from slavery to today with the judicial system. African Americans have had less opportunities and have dealt with racism, with crimes committed by blacks getting harsher punishments and lengthier sentences. Black Americans are at risk for being racially profiled, this has helped with the term mass incarceration. This paper will discuss the treatment of African Americans from slavery with convict leasing and chain gangs to different theories such as the differential opportunity theory to the statistics of African Americans being the largest group of people being incarcerated in the United States.

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Over the past few decades, the United States has witnessed a huge increase in the number of people in jail or prison. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The jail and prison population in 1972 was 200,000 and has increased to 2.2 million today. (Nellis) Those numbers show a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Today, African Americans make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. The mass incarceration of African Americans is steadily climbing at a rapid speed. In this paper, I will be explaining how our society went from the time of slavery and now mass incarceration of our African Americans.

Mass incarceration can be compared and related back to the days of slavery in the United States. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. ‘The proclamation declared ‘that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states ‘are, and hence forward shall be free.” (National Archives) Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the ending of the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment. An effort to establish equality for black Americans was a part of the Reconstruction Amendments. After the reconstruction, African Americans were considered too lazy to work by white people. This caused legislators to pass the black codes, which was a system of white control. ‘Black codes were restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished during the Civil War.” (Networks)(A&E Television Networks 2018) After a period, the black codes were overturned. During the Reconstruction Era, federal legislation protecting newly freed slaves was passed.

The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery; The Fourteenth Amendment, prohibiting the states from denying citizens due process and equal protection of the laws; and the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote could not be denied on the account of race were impressive achievements. (Fejfar) The Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, states no one shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Due process means that laws must be applied fairly and equality to all people, especially to a citizen accused of a crime. (Independence Hall Association 2008-2018) With these achievements, black advancement began to take place. After slaves were freed for a period, white southerners wanted to redeem the South. Once again, African Americans found themselves stuck in the abyss of white supremacy. History was repeating itself as laws where mischief crimes were enforced against blacks. These criminal offenses were the start to convict leasing.

After the Civil War, the South’s economy and society was in shambles. Some states paid private contractors to house and feed prisoners and leased out their convicts to planters or industrialists who paid minimal rates for workers. This eliminated costs and increased revenue. With convict laborers, employers had only a small investment and little incentive to treat them well. Public sympathy grew about convict laborers and in the early 1900s, dramatic stories began to be publicized through trials and newspaper about the abuse and wretched conditions of convict laborers. Many states stopped leasing out their convict laborers and started working them on public projects in chain gangs. Chain gangs can be defined as a group of convicts chained together while working outside of the prison and that are forced to labor at tasks such as road construction, ditch digging and farming. Working in chain gangs caused painful ulcers and dangerous infections from the heavy shackles used to hold the prisoners together. Overtime, chain gangs changed to work gangs. It was the same, just not in chains. At the time of convict leasing and chain gangs, the start of rebuilding of the South began. During this time, thousands of African Americans were being arrested. At this time there was also debt slavery or debt servitude which was also called Peonage. Peonage is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Peonage was legally outlawed by Congress in 1867, but many black men were still swept into Peonage. The system was fully eradicated in the 1940s. During the most corrupt and abusive peonage, many black men were picked up over minor crimes or even false charges and faced with fines and fees, then they were forced to work, and a local employer would pay their fines for them. The Pig Law started after the end of slavery, just one in a slew of laws enacted by white southerners to replace what the South lost in the War: a steady stream of free labor. (Jones) The Pig Law took a crime most likely to be committed by a black person and made the penalty harsher. If someone stole a pig, it carried a harsher punishment because it was a crime commonly committed by a black person. Some argue that the criminal justice system was employed to force African Americans back into a system of control and would be proven to continue for generations to come. Black people were segregated for another 100 years, being denied the right to vote and their dignity stripped. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s helped with ending racial segregation.

Theories on Crime

There are several theories that justify why people commit crimes. Differential Opportunity Theory and Social Disorganization Theory are two that I will discuss. Differential opportunity is a theory that suggests that one’s socio-economic environment predetermines their likelihood of achieving financial success through legitimate or illegitimate means. An easy way to explain and understand the differential opportunity theory is that a poor kid growing up in a poor neighborhood might take to crime because of lack of opportunity in his environment verses the environment being reversed and put into an opportunity rich environment, where he would move away from crime. Living in a lower class socioeconomic will often choose to bypass education and turn to a life of crime, gang activity and drug use or dealing. With many of our African Americans living and growing up in a minority neighborhood, this has been one factor leading to the mass incarceration of African Americans. In 1942, Clifford Shaw and Henry D McKay, two criminology researchers developed social disorganization theory through research.

‘The theory of social disorganization states a person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavior choices that a person makes.” (Bond) Marcus Aurelius states, ‘Poverty is the mother of crime.” It is suggested that a person’s residential location is more significant when predicting criminal activity than the person’s characteristics. ‘Social disorganization causes a weakening of group solidarity, loss of control over its members, and therefore, conflict and disintegration. (Queen, Bodenhafer, and Harper) Shaw and McKay (1942) also noted that, socially disorganized neighborhoods tended to produce ‘criminal traditions” that could be passed to successive generations of youths. Younger youths easily learn through daily contact with older juveniles. With lack of behavior control mechanisms, a neighborhood characterized by social disorganization provides fertile soil for crime and delinquency. Social disorganization can also influence youth violence through stability and family structure, this causes an increase in crime rates.
All communities have not been touched equally by mass incarceration. Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system. (Sentencing Project) A black man is six times more likely to be incarcerated in the United States than a white man is. (American Civil Liberties Union) Black men in prison make up 60% of the prison population. (Kirby) Black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail. According to the Washington Post, by the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent being imprisoned for some period. African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs, but African Americans are growing in being arrested. Children of incarcerated parents do worse when it comes to cognitive and noncognitive measures, and incarceration is a key cause. Behavior such as post-traumatic stress disorder, dropping out of school, developing learning disabilities and misbehaving in school are all related to having a parent that is incarcerated. (Strauss) Not only do parents that are in prison suffer, but their children as well

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From Slavery to Mass Incarceration of African Americans. (2021, Mar 04). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from
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