Before mass incarceration there was Jim Crow. Before Jim Crow there was slavery.

What distinguishes mass incarceration from the American subjugation schemes it replaced? The distinction, I submit, is obvious and identifies the real obstacle in the path of addressing what has become a clear moral imperative. No sane American supports current levels of incarceration. No sane American seeks to dispute the racism so obviously embedded in America’s system of mass incarceration. Why, then, has there been virtually no progress on this front? 


Consider what would happen to the employment numbers if 80% of America’s incarcerated population were suddenly released. Many of the previously incarcerated would enter the job market, but the uptick in unemployment wouldn’t end there. Guards and other employees of the bloated prison system suddenly would be seeking new work, as would those employed by contractors to prison system now peddling a wide variety of services to prisoners and their families at obscenely bloated prices.

What would happen if the health insurance industry were scrapped in favor of medicare for all? Truth is, an industry based on making a profit by denying medical care to its customers creates lots more jobs than does government-run health care.

How many jobs would vanish if America’s global military presence were pared back?

In America, we may have something that seems like reasonably full employment, but it’s full employment based on manufactured jobs that really aren’t necessary. This is what astonishing advances in technology bring under a system of insufficiently constrained capitalism: A surplus of humanity.

Which is what distinguishes mass incarceration from Jim Crow and slavery. Used to be that white America needed to steal or underpay for black labor to make its economy work. No longer. So, subjugation systems designed to exploit black labor have been replaced with one that primarily removes them from society in large numbers. Although there also is a remaining element of labor exploitation (many prisoners work at slave wages), that is incidental. The essence of mass incarceration is the removal from society, not the theft of labor. In a disgusting, immoral way, it’s actually a logical progression.

Huffington Post writer Antonio Moore captures this here:

The incarceration of young blacks is part of the reason the unemployment numbers fell under the Clintons. Effectively by incarcerating young black men they became an invisible population and no longer counted as unemployed, despite still being jobless behind bars. In addition, through their imprisonment jobs were created for officers, judges, prison guards and the like, in communities across the country.

In short, mass incarceration (mostly of blacks and Latinos) has been to America’s economy what cocaine is to a person’s feeling of well-being: an artificial stimulant. And as with cocaine, the addictive effect is undeniable. From Building a Prison Economy in Rural America, at prison

During the last two decades, the large-scale use of incarceration to solve social problems has combined with the fall-out of globalization to produce an ominous trend: prisons have become a “growth industry” in rural America. Communities suffering from declines in farming, mining, timber-work and manufacturing are now begging for prisons to be built in their backyards. The economic restructuring that began in the troubled decade of the 1980s has had dramatic social and economic consequences for rural communities and small towns. Together the farm crises, factory closings, corporate downsizing, shift to service sector employment and the substitution of major regional and national chains for local, main-street businesses have triggered profound change in these areas. The acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in the United States has become widespread. Hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions. 

The bottom line: Beating our addiction to racist subjugation in the age of surplus humanity, like the recovery from any addiction, will involve short-term pain. The economies of small towns across America will suffer a devastating blow.

And therein lies the obstacle to addressing what we now all know is a moral imperative.