2023 Equity Challenge Day 13: Mass Incarceration: An Injustice System?

Like Jim Crow and slavery, mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.

Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

As we look at the history of incarceration, it’s important to recognize how incarceration helps keep the system of white supremacy in power. Mass incarceration refers to the reality that the United States criminalizes and incarcerates more of its own people than any other country in the history of the world and inflicts that enormous harm primarily on poor people of color. The history of policing and mass incarceration in the United States is deeply rooted in systemic racism and discrimination against Black Americans and other people of color. 

The origins of modern policing can be traced back to the slave patrols that were established in the southern United States in the 1700s. These patrols were tasked with enforcing the slave codes, which governed the behavior and movement of enslaved people. After slavery was abolished in 1863, slave patrols were replaced by police departments, which continued to be used to control and oppress Black people. 

After the Civil War and throughout the mid-1900s, the use of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the U.S. continued to foster an environment of discrimination and racial violence. Policing during this time was largely used to enforce these racist laws and maintain segregation. In 1971, the War on Drugs was officially inaugurated by President Nixon, which used drug laws to selectively target specific communities. This has led to a significant increase in the number of people of color being incarcerated, particularly Black Americans, and is a reality that continues today. The War on Drugs was fueled by harsh sentencing laws and policies, such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, which disproportionately targeted Black people and other people of color. The impact of these policies has been devastating, with mass incarceration tearing apart families and communities and perpetuating cycles of poverty and disadvantage. 

The disproportionate targeting of Black Americans and other people of color by law enforcement is also reflected in police violence and brutality. Black people are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police, and are more likely to be subjected to excessive force, including deadly force. This has resulted in numerous high-profile cases of police brutality, such as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. 

Some examples of the disproportionate impact of policing and mass incarceration include: 

  • Stop and frisk: Black people are disproportionately stopped and frisked by police. According to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, between 2003 and 2013, Black and Latino individuals made up close to 90% of all stops, despite comprising only 52% of the population in New York City.   
  • Arrests: Black people are also more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug offenses, despite using drugs at similar rates to White people. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than White people, even though both groups use drugs at similar rates. 
  • Use of force: Black people are more likely to be subjected to excessive force, including deadly force, by police officers. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black people are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police officers than White people. In addition, according to Mapping Police Violence, Black people are more likely to be unarmed when they are killed by police officers than White people. 
  • Sentencing: Black people are also more likely to receive harsher sentences than White people for the same crimes. According to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission, Black male offenders receive sentences that are, on average, 19.1% longer than White male offenders for the same crimes.  

The impact of policing and mass incarceration on the present day is significant. Black Americans and other people of color continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and the criminal justice system is marked by racial bias and discrimination. The effects of mass incarceration, including the loss of voting rights, employment opportunities and social and economic mobility, are felt not only by those who are incarcerated but by their families and communities as well. 

The implications for the future are clear: Unless there is significant change in our criminal justice system, the oppression and discrimination faced by Black Americans and other people of color will continue. This change must involve rethinking the role of law enforcement, addressing the systemic racism that is embedded in our laws and policies and investing in community-based solutions that prioritize prevention, rehabilitation and support rather than punishment and incarceration. Only then can we begin to dismantle the systems of oppression that have devastated Black and Brown communities across the United States and create a truly just system.  Organizations across the region are working tirelessly to address this racial inequity. Detroit’s own Developing Despite Distance is an organization that supports young men of color currently impacted by the incarceration of their parents. Their letter-writing workshops strengthen parent-child relationships. Their group counseling supports these young people in identifying their emotions and creating health coping strategies. They also work to increase awareness that you with incarcerated parents exist while helping to reduce the stigma associated with parental incarceration. Developing Despite Distance is a member of the 2023 Racial Equity Fund Cohort. You can learn more about their work here




  • Watch The Origins of Law Enforcement in America. Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Chenjerai Kumanyika explain how American policing grew out of efforts to control the labor of poor and enslaved people in the 19th century and beyond. (7 minutes)
  • The 13th is an award-winning American documentary film from 2016 that explores the intersection of race, justice, slavery and mass incarceration in the United States. Check out the trailer. (2 minutes) The feature film is also available for free. (1 hour 40 minutes)


  • Listen to Justice in America: Episode 28: School to Prison Pipeline. Josie Duffy Rice and Derecka Purnell talk to Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, about the school to prison pipeline, and how it is especially affecting non-white children across America. (1 hour)

Reflect And Share

  1. What feelings came up for you while reading today’s challenge?  
  2. What is a system of violence that you know of? Try to answer the following questions when thinking about that system: 
    • How did this system of violence begin? What is the root? 
    • What promotes or encourages this system of violence to continue? 
    • What would it take to end this system of violence? 
    • What are the ways you can bring peace into your own life? How can we incorporate more peace and justice within systems that impact your life?   


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

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