We must challenge and change our system of mass incarceration


“Police!” The shout from outside the front door was followed by the house shaking violently from a stampede of police exploding through the door. I was a terrified four-year-old in Spiderman pajamas staring at high-powered assault rifles aimed at me and my mother.

After ransacking our home, the police soon realized that they had raided the wrong apartment. It was 1982, the year President Reagan declared a “War on Drugs.” The war became a tool of a discriminatory and oppressive social control system.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010) is a compelling analysis of how the war on drugs resulted in the mass incarceration of African Americans, which led to second-class citizenship. “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,” the book states.

Criminal records are the heart of this mass incarceration system, and it’s fueled by the War on Drugs. In our society, felons are considered unfit and unworthy of basic citizenship rights. Like Jim Crow laws, people with criminal records face voting, housing and employment discrimination.

Felons, with their hands tied behind their backs and their feet bound, are dropped from the prison plank into the turbulent sea of society and told to swim to stability and success or sink back to prison. If they sink, they are ridiculed and viewed as inherently criminal.

Criminal records cripple social mobility and perpetuate crime and poverty by limiting access to legitimate means of success. People who have completed their prison sentences deserve the same freedom and opportunity to pursue fulfilling lives as everyone else.

Their past is just that: It’s behind them. If President Obama had received a felony for his past drug use, it’s likely that the level of his positive impact on the world would drastically be reduced.

To be sure, a criminal record in and of itself isn’t a problem. The problem is the lifetime stigma associated with a criminal record and the restrictions it puts on rights necessary for advancement in this society.

Many of the debilitating criminal records arise from drug convictions. Time Magazine (April 2, 2012) noted that 80 percent of the 1.66 million people arrested for illegal drugs in 2009 were arrested for possession. The lack of arrest for sales indicates that illegal drug users are the target of the drug war, not suppliers.

Prison doesn’t cure the disease of drug addiction. The 2011 global commission on drug policy concluded that the War on Drugs has failed to stop consumption and that government should decriminalize illegal drugs. Portugal employed this strategy, and their drug consumption and drug-related crimes decreased significantly.

Like Jim Crow, the War on Drugs targets African Americans. The majority of illegal drug users in the U.S. are White. Yet, more African Americans are convicted for drug crimes. Alexander reveals that “More African Americans are under correctional control — prison, jail, probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850.”

Alexander insightfully explains that simply telling African Americans to make better choices and avoid illegal drug activity isn’t an effective strategy to solve the problem of mass incarceration. People will always make mistakes despite their best efforts. We’re only human.

The problem is that the “racially biased system of mass incarceration exploits the fact that all people make mistakes and break the law.” As long as people focus on the “politics of responsibility,” the mass incarceration system will continue to relegate African Americans to second-class citizenship for making the same choices that White people are overlooked for making.

The system itself must be challenged on two fronts. The criminalization of drug use must end, and most importantly, the practice of denying vital citizenship rights because of a past criminal record must end.

The threat of our incarceration nation is the poverty and crime stimulated by the marginalized and oppressed status of those with criminal records. Minnesota Second Chance Coalition fights to eliminate the discrimination resulting from criminal records. Take action and join this movement.

Inaction on our part is no less than compliance with the oppression of our own people. Compliance is unacceptable. Be defiant! Be an agitator! Be a part of the solution!


Jeffery Young welcomes reader responses to Jeffery Young #213390, 7600 525th St., Rush City, MN 55069.