Social Problems Driving Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 5
Words: 1407
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College

The United States is the world leader in the number of prisoners. The country’s prison population, which has grown to millions, is seen as a unique social phenomenon, and is referred to as a policy of mass incarceration. The term spread in America back in the early 1970s, when the number of people put behind bars increased exponentially. This trend was widespread largely due to the decision of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, to declare war on drug-related crime. This staggering growth hit racial minorities the hardest: they were disproportionately imprisoned, which is still the case today. Prison populations have grown both federally and locally. The majority of U.S. prisoners are still held in state prisons. From the late 1980s to the present, the U.S. prison population has nearly quadrupled, suggesting that “mass incarceration” is a phenomenon the country has been watching for decades (‘Mass incarceration in the U.S’, n.d.). In many ways, mass incarceration in the U.S. has been driven by widespread social problems. The problems that caused mass incarceration include excessive criminalization, commercialization of prisons, and racial discrimination.

Incarceration rates are dismal, with prisons often overcrowded, sometimes holding twice as many people as their standard capacity. One of the significant social problems affecting this state of affairs is the excessive criminalization of the justice system. Prosecutorial discretion and a prosecutorial tendency that builds on defendants’ guilty pleas contribute to the increase in prison and other incarceration rates (Waldman & Levi, 2017). The incentive to induce a defendant to plead guilty is for prosecutors to exceed their rights. Increasing prosecutors’ accountability and encouraging them to offer sentencing alternatives may be a solution to this problem. The overcriminalization of the judicial system also contributed to the issues associated with inequality of wealth and its correlation with the situation of those who do not have it.

This is best seen in schools, where children from low-income families are often perceived as disadvantaged and come under greater scrutiny by law enforcement. Disproportionate school punishments, zero-tolerance policies, and officials’ harsh treatment of school discipline violators lead to higher dropout rates and an increase in their referrals to the legal system when a student commits an offense (Zinn, 1980). Previously, the problem was not acute because school administrators dealt with troublemakers. Now, students can end up in juvenile detention facilities for violating school discipline.

Another problem affecting mass incarceration in the United States is the commercialization of prisons. Because of the dramatic increase in the number of prisoners in the 1980s, the country began to face an acute shortage of prisons. Private companies came to the aid of the state and began to outsource the care of prisoners. These institutions made money on government contracts that stipulated the cost per inmate. Prisons provide their “clients” with mandatory food, clothing, medical care, and other household items and services. The problem is that conditions in private prisons have traditionally been worse than in state prisons (‘Mass incarceration in the U.S’, n.d.). This is often due to the desire of commercial organizations to save money for the sake of additional profits. Private companies save on food and introduce other paid services. In addition, staff members in these prisons are usually less well-trained than their state counterparts, and they are paid less. All of this has an impact on prison security and the conditions in which prisoners are held. Thus, the social problem is the commercialization of prisons and the strikingly poor conditions for inmates to earn a living.

Institutions benefit from keeping inmates in their walls longer so that recidivism or prolonged incarceration guarantees them additional income. Indeed, point-by-point criticism of private prisons does not mean that things are different in state institutions. There are also problems with corruption, violence, and poor detention conditions. Another problematic thing is the very concept of someone building a private business using prisoners. Thus, the financial incentives for incarceration must be reduced, and the federal government’s use of private detention centers must be phased out in order to reduce the number of prisoners (‘Mass incarceration in the U.S’, n.d.). But perhaps the main question remains how refusing to cooperate with private prisons will solve the “mass incarceration” problem. The role of prisons, both federal and private, comes down to providing isolation for convicts. The courts and police, not them, decide who goes to jail. That is why the problem of overcriminalization, as discussed above, must first be solved before private prisons can be abolished.

One of the significant social problems affecting mass incarceration in the United States is also racial discrimination. Although black and white Americans have equal rights, their daily lives are hardly the same. Even more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, African Americans continue to face problems that seriously affect their position in society (Waldman & Levi, 2017). Regarding incarceration, African Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated and sentenced to longer terms. The reason for this is that the black population is less integrated into society as a whole; this is called systemic racism. Back in the days of racial segregation, American investors divided cities into favorable and unfavorable zones. Money was invested in areas where the white majority lived, infrastructure was built, and banks willingly gave loans to locals. At the same time, investment was out of the question in black neighborhoods populated by poor, less educated descendants of formerly enslaved people (Waldman & Levi, 2017). Banks refused to make loans to African Americans, and agents would not sell them real estate in white neighborhoods. As a result, many African Americans lived in communities that remained gray areas for decades.

The U.S. has a property tax, from which local schools are budgeted, and utilities and police are paid. Residents of poor neighborhoods do not own property but use social housing, hence do not pay taxes. Because of this, local schools are overcrowded and underfunded, with almost no students of different social statuses and colors. Public transportation in such areas is poor. There are more security problems due to a lack of police and fewer job opportunities, as large businesses prefer to open elsewhere (Waldman & Levi, 2017). It turns out that a white American born and raised in an upscale neighborhood, who went to a good school, attended additional classes, and grew up in a safer environment, has a better chance of a prosperous future than his black peer. It is because of poverty, lack of education, and poor social opportunities caused by racism and segregation that black crime is high. The solution to this problem could be to raise the standard of living of black people by equalizing them in rights with the white population, not only formally but also in practice.

To summarize, the problem of mass incarceration in the United States is severe. Prisons are overcrowded, and prisoners are not given good conditions. This paper has provided an analysis of the social problems that most affect the progression of mass incarceration. The first problem highlighted was the excessive criminalization of the judicial system. Prosecutors in charge of criminal and administrative cases are inducing prisoners to confess their guilt. This is a vast social problem, as it is rooted in the abuse of power by state employees. Excessive criminalization is also evident in schools in the treatment of violators of established discipline. Previously, such issues were not taken out of the schoolroom but were dealt with by the principal with the involvement of the offender’s parents. Now, more and more students are at risk of being sentenced for violating school rules.

The second problem is the commercialization of prisons. Businesspeople who run private prisons save money on providing normal conditions for inmates and make money on paid services. They also make sure that inmates stay in jail as long as possible because they get funding. The problem with private prisons is that people want to profit from crime and judicial matters. The third problem discussed in this paper was racial discrimination. Because of this phenomenon, which still exists in American society, black people are poorly integrated into the social system. Because of poverty, lack of education, and prejudicial attitudes of employers, crime rates among blacks are on the rise. Thus, it is people of color who comprise the majority of the prison population. It is necessary to reform the judicial system, eliminate private prisons, and eradicate racial inequality in society to solve these problems.


Mass incarceration in the U.S. (n.d). [PowerPoint Presentation]

Waldman, A., & Levi, R. (2017). Inside this place, not of it: Narratives from women’s prisons. Verso.

Zinn, H. (1980). A people’s history of the United States. Harper & Row.