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The Colors of Justice in America’s State Prisons

Race and racial inequality have played a crucial role in shaping the history of the United States of America (U.S.) since its establishment in the 1700s. People in the U.S. prefer to imagine that the establishment of the U.S. was motivated by the pursuit of freedom, originally religious liberty, social liberty, political, and economic liberties. Even though slavery was abolished, American civilization was created on cruel patterns of oppression, inequality, and dominance, which comprised of the complete denial of freedom to enslaved people from the very beginning. What has been called “one of the great puzzles of American history” is how the principles of equality and freedom could live side by side with slavery. Even now, Americans are still dealing with the repercussions of that dilemma. Therefore, without a doubt, most institutions in the United States of America, particularly America’s early prison systems, especially in the Midwest and South, were either driven more by the racial, social control measures or economic aims.

For a very long period, criminologists anticipated that the rate of imprisonment in the United States would remain relatively steady in the foreseeable future. Approximately 100 out of every 100,000 persons were imprisoned, and this percentage remained consistent until the early 1970s. When this happened, there was an immediate and significant rise in the number of people imprisoned in the United States, with imprisonment rates increasing by more than 600 percent between the mid-1960s and 2000. However, high incarceration rates in communities are associated with high crime rates and community degradation, which in turn contributes to increased inequalities. According to researchers, Black people are disproportionately affected by this cycle, both individually and collectively. It is undeniable that the current state of incarceration is not the result of chance but rather the result of policies enacted by a dominant white culture committed to the repression of others since the founding of the United States of America.

One would wonder, what factors contribute to the disproportionate imprisonment of black males in the United States? Some researchers, such as Blankenship et al. (2018), hold the war on drugs responsible. However, this was not the beginning of the relationship between race and incarceration. Previous historical research has shown that there was a large increase in the number of formerly enslaved people being imprisoned in the United States (Sykes & Bailey, 2020). The abolition of slavery coincided with an increase in the number of people incarcerated across the British Empire. In 1833, the West Indies had a jail population of roughly 1,000 prisoners, a significant increase from the previous year (Madley, 2019). By 1835, it had increased by an eightfold margin. The abolition of slavery in the United States was followed by a desire to incapacitate “problem” communities in various ways, just as it was in the British West Indies. For example, as the future governor of Mississippi’s prison put it at the time, “Emancipating black people will need a network of penitentiaries” (Soper, 2018).

For most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, convicted people were compelled to work in the fields rather than remain behind prison walls. When the convict leasing system ended, the numbers began to rise inexorably once again. According to Soper (2018), the number of convicts increased from 42 in 1900 to more than 500 in 1910 and more than 1000 by 1920. Typically, the massive increase in Georgia prisoners throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was caused by the sweeping of young black males through the prison gates. The significant and persistent migration of African-Americans between 18 and 22 was the primary reason for the population growth.

The fact that black people are incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate in America’s criminal justice system is tragic but frequently underestimated, truth. Existing evidence has demonstrated that a significant number of black males in jail account for a significant proportion of all prisoners in the country’s prison system. For that matter, it is apparent that I would say that America’s early prison systems, especially in the American South and Midwest, were not driven more by racial, social control measures but by economic aims. In other words, measures were put in place to see many black people arrested so that they would serve jail terms that required them to work on farms.


Blankenship, K. M., del Rio Gonzalez, A. M., Keene, D. E., Groves, A. K., & Rosenberg, A. P. (2018). Mass incarceration, race inequality, and health: expanding concepts and assessing impacts on well-being. Social Science & Medicine215, 45-52.

Madley, B. (2019). California’s first mass incarceration system: Franciscan missions, California Indians, and penal servitude, 1769–1836. Pacific Historical Review88(1), 14-47.

Soper, S. (2018, May 22). Prison records from 1800s Georgia show mass incarceration’s racially charged beginnings. The Conversation.

Sykes, B. L., & Bailey, A. K. (2020). Institutional castling: Military enlistment and mass incarceration in the United States. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences6(1), 30-54.


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