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Mass Incarceration in America and the New Jim Crow

While the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prison population. The American form of democracy has created human rights crisis through the largest prison system in the history of the world. (1) According to the Human Rights Watch 2017 World Report, the death penalty, harsh sentencing, policing, youth in the justice system, and the conditions of jails and prisons are some of the top issues of human rights we are facing as a nation.

NGOs working on the issue

  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • California Coalition for Women Prisoners
  • Center on Juvinile and Criminal Justice
  • Death Penalty Information Center
  • Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
  • Human Rights Watch

Links to additional relevant NGOs

Sources to Consult

Graham v. Florida, 09-1233, 130 (S. Ct. 2010). – The Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for any convictions other than homicide. With this case specifically, the court clarified that the ruling could be made retroactive, allowing for prisoners who had been sentenced while minors to request a resentencing hearing. Granatstein, Solly, Lucian Read, and Richard Rowley. The System: Policing and Mass Incarceration. 2016; Divided Films. Kanopy Streaming. – This film is part of the America Divided series by EPIX. This episode follows Common as he returns to Chicago in an attempt to dig deeper into the Cook County criminal justice system. He begins with activists protesting the murder of Laquan McDonald, and as he interviews more people involved in policing and corrections in Cook County, the deeper the problems Chicago is facing seem to go. Poverty, crime, police brutality, lack of jobs and good education all seem to be working together in specific and predominately African American neighborhoods in Chicago to perpetuate a cycle of mass and repeated incarceration. Harcourt, Bernard E., Reducing Mass Incarceration: Lessons from the Deinstitutionalization of Mental Hospitals in the 1960s (January 26, 2011). U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 542; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 335. Available at SSRN: or – This paper follows the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals by President Kennedy in the 1960’s. The author uses the model followed by the government at the time as a roadmap to potentially use to reduce incarceration in the U.S. The author makes specific references to the government incentives provided to motivate states to decrease their populations in mental institutions as a possibility for current prison reform incentives. He also notes potential traps to avoid, such as re-institutionalization in other forms. Letson, Al, “The Man Inside: Four Months as a Prison Guard.” Produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and Public Radio International. Reveal. June 25, 2016. Podcast, MP3 audio, 54:06, accessed January 13. – This podcast follows the story of Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer as he spends four months undercover in a private prison in Louisiana. This podcast, as well as the print story in Mother Jones, describes inhumane treatment of prisoners, lack of appropriate care, and a system that serves to perpetuate violence, dehumanization, and criminality. Lopez, German. “Mass Incarceration in America, Explained in 22 Maps and Charts,”, Updated Oct 11, 2016, – This report by Vox breaks down current statistics and trends in mass incarceration into several different maps, charts, and graphs. It provides a simple and straightforward way for people to get and share information on the current state of the criminal justice system in the United States, divided into categories such as race and gender. Pequenza, Nadine, dir. 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story. 2014; Outcast Films. Kanopy Streaming. – Kenneth’s story follows the life of a 26-year-old man who has been in prison for 11 years. At the age of 15, he was convicted of four counts of armed robbery and sentenced to four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Essentially, at age 15 he was condemned to die in prison. After the Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida, his attorneys attempt to have him resentenced while taking into account his age at the time of the crimes, his family circumstances, and his conduct during his 11 years as a model prisoner. The story is compelling and at times difficult to watch, but is important in understanding the human aspect of sentencing children to spend their entire lives behind bars. Pillischer, Matthew, dir. Broken on All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, and New Visions for Criminal Justice. 2012; Collective Eye Films. Kanopy Streaming. – This film dives into the prison system in Philadelphia. Through interviews with activists and scholars, a racially biased system is exposed and the human rights abuses inherent with the extreme overcrowding of prisons is addressed. Rabuy, Bernadette and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017” March 14, 2017. – This report from the Prison Policy Initiative compiles data from the Bureau of Justice and the FBI to examine trends in current prison statistics. Also through the use of graphs and charts, they address the massive numbers of people being held without a conviction in the United States and the numbers of nonviolent drug offenders. “Report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.”, August 2013, – This report takes a detailed look at racial disparities in the criminal justice system, starting with involvement of the police through trials and sentencing. Statistics discussed show higher rates of arrest and prosecution of People of Color over white peers, as well as harsher sentences for similar crimes. There are many statistics that also note that defendants who remain incarcerated during the course of a trial are far more likely to face conviction. Segura, Liliana. “Former Prisoners are Leading the Fight Against Mass Incarceration”,, September 16, 2016, – This report from The Intercept discusses the critical role former inmates are playing in addressing issues with mass incarceration. There are a number of nonprofit organizations currently operating to address issues such as reinstatement of voting rights for those convicted of a felony and legal services and support for prisoners with children and the families of the incarcerated.

Mass Incarceration In America And The New Jim Crow
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