Racism, Police Violence and Mass Incarceration: the legacies of slavery and segregation in the United States

The recent killing of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis has sparked mass protests across the globe. Floyd was asphyxiated to death as the officer, without shame or reluctance, knelt on his neck for nine long minutes. His crime? Counterfeiting a $20 note. While this incident unveiled the systemically-rooted remnants of racism that continue to exist in the 21st century, it also highlighted the dehumanisation faced by Black people at the hands of law enforcement personnel in the United States (US), ironically the world’s most vehement proponent of freedom and democracy. Indeed, mass incarceration statistics in the US indicate an over-representation of marginalised communities, and the startling fact that 1 out of 35 African Americans is behind bars (Social Justice, 2000) is no coincidence. People of colour are brutalised within both justice and prison systems, and the state capitalises on their incarceration. It is no exaggeration to call the US prison system an ‘ethnoracial ghetto’ since, today, there are more African Americans in prison than in college (Mallory, 2015). The present incarceration policies strongly reflect legacies of slavery that have long plagued the social and moral fabric of the country. Marginalised communities continue to suffer at the hands of a justice system that paradoxically metes out injustice. Transformative change, through movements such as Black Lives Matter, is therefore sorely needed.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The last few decades have witnessed a steep rise in incarceration in the United States. State and federal incarceration rose by over 200% between 1980 and 1996 (Blumstein and Beck, 1999). Today, the US comprises 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its incarcerated population (Cullen, 2017), and the highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world, of nearly 1 out of 100 people (Wagner and Bertram, 2020). A closer look indicates a symbiotic relationship between private corporations, political parties, and the government, which has been termed a Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC). The term was first coined by Angela Davis and Eric Schlosser in 1998, to define the underlying interest of the government and private corporations in putting people behind bars. Private companies involved with prison facilities extensively profit from a spike in inmate population and mobilise gains from ‘tough on crime’ legislative policies (Aviram, 2015), by extracting labour from prisoners at wages considerably lower than the federal minimum wage set by the Fair Labour Standards. Wages are often set as low as 16-93 cents an hour and in some states, not paid at all (Bozelko, 2017; McGrew and Hanks, 2017). Private prisons are run by companies such as CoreCivic and GEO Group, both of which each donated $250,000 to President Trump’s inaugural committee in 2016 (Ahmed, 2019). Tellingly, political affiliations keep these organisations thriving despite blatant human rights violations within their facilities.

Where prisons are run by the government, private organisations provide services at extremely high rates, thereby capitalising on the high number of inmates. For instance, telecom companies such as Securus charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone call, profiting $1.3bn annually (Worth Rises, 2019). Likewise, food service giant Aramark provides low-quality meals at sky-high prices in a number of correctional facilities. In this sense, the prison system has translated itself into a money minting business that serves the interest of private organisations and the government alike. The PIC clearly allows those in power to further oppress and maintain firm control over the oppressed.

Race, incarceration and  the war on drugs

African Americans, the first victims of mass incarceration programmes, are continually subjugated by way of racist policies and stereotypes that brand them as ‘problematic’ citizens. Although the Civil War marked the end of slavery in the US, ‘through the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (which permits forced labour in prison) and various other legal practices, the current prison system has manifested itself into an institution of forced labour, comprising of people of colour’ (Raza, 2011, p.159). Immediately after the passing of the Amendment, post-abolition laws emerged as a means to further discriminate against the Black population, for example through the introduction of segregation laws that heavily criminalized previously benign actions such as ‘loitering’. President Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971 similarly led to the enactment of draconian legislation that mandated harsh prison sentences for drug abuse and peddling. Under President Reagan, Congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that laid down mandatory minimum prison sentences for different kinds of drug offences. Within this Act, longer sentences for ‘crack’ possession – a drug mostly consumed in Black communities – were implemented, while ‘coke’ consumption – another form of cocaine usually circulating in white circles – received little attention (Palamar, 2015).  Thus, one could possess 100 times more ‘coke’ than ‘crack’ to merit the same minimum prison sentence. These laws have been direct perpetrators of masked discrimination, resulting in the disproportionately high incarceration of Black people to this day.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that ‘Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sent to prison’(Deborah Small, 2001). While this disparity was somewhat alleviated by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, much remains to be done to undo the harm suffered by Black communities across centuries. (Carlsen, 2010). In fact, racial profiling fuelled by stereotypes that Black people are more prone to drug use has also played against the African American population, who have been relentlessly stopped and searched by police and, too often, wounded or killed in the process. Black male adults are about five times more likely to be unfairly stopped and three times more likely to be searched by the police as compared to their white counterparts (Desilver, Lipka and Fahmy, 2020). While the abolition of slavery more than 150 years ago elevated people of colour to equal footing under the law on paper, law enforcement agencies, working hand in hand with the justice system, continue to subjugate them to date.

Dehumanising treatment and wrongful convictions

Within the US prison system, various forms of cruel and degrading treatment have been justified through arguments of self-defence and the premise that there is no harm in meting out such treatment to ‘criminals’. The phrase ‘you do the crime, you do the time’ illustrates the prevailing sentiment within the prison system that all prisoners have broken the law and have presumably gotten what they deserve, despite only 5% of total arrests being for serious offences (Breen, 2008; Sawyer, 2020). Race, again, has a strong bearing on convictions, wherein a large number of African Americans and Latinos are wrongfully convicted for crimes, even when prima facie evidence suggests otherwise. In a case that later came to be known as the ‘Central Park Five’, five young Black men were wrongfully convicted in 1989 for a rape they never committed through forced confessions. Only in 2002, when the lives of the men had been ruined and defamed by national outrage, did another murderer confess to having committed the rape (Duru, 2004). This injustice is also quantifiable: an innocent Black person is seven times more likely to be convicted for murder as compared to an innocent white person (Gross, Possley and Stephens, 2017).

Such dehumanising treatment and violence contribute to higher rates of recidivism. Even after being released from jail, 1 out of 4 people are arrested again within the same year (Jones and Sawyer, 2019). These are usually people whose problems such as substance abuse and mental illness have been exacerbated during and after incarceration. The system stunts and sabotages the growth of prisoners instead of rehabilitating them; and because Blacks are so highly incarcerated, this affects the entirety of the African American community. The prison abolition movement argues for a different approach to crime, one that frees itself ‘from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law’ (Davis and Rodriguez, 2000) and instead envisions reformative justice achieved through other methods of rehabilitation. When the ‘police continue to serve their historical political function that includes disproportionate killing of black males’, it is time to rethink and abolish these institutions of oppression (Grabiner, 2016). Police abolition movements, such as #DefundThePolice have recently gained considerable traction, seeking to dismantle the false perception that a society without police forces means a society of horror and crime. Cutting down on police personnel and reducing the budget for police departments would go a long way in reducing their excesses (Kaba, 2020). Where such remaining money is used for steering positive development in sectors of education and healthcare, this may serve as a long-term solution to transform conditions of marginalisation and trauma into trust, safety and peace.


The Black Lives Matter movement today stands as a loud and unstoppable roar against the silencing, policing and imprisonment of African Americans and Black people around the globe. George Floyd’s last words – ‘I can’t breathe’ – bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Eric Garner in 2014. Garner repeated these words 11 times, as bystanders continued to film his cold-blooded murder at the hands of police officers, who pinned him down and continued to choke him, while his cries for mercy fell on deaf ears. These words seem to illustrate the lived experiences of African Americans, whose voices have continuously been muffled and identities stifled through centuries of oppression and stigmatisation. Racial profiling and racist justice have resulted in the brutal deaths of hundreds of people of colour for petty offences and led to the mass incarceration of Black men, whose futures are ruined from the moment they are put into prison by a justice system built on their discrimination.

Since a society’s criminal justice system is no more than a product of its beliefs, American and Western values must be reformed to address past discrimination and future reparation for Black people. This can only happen through mass movements like this one, which recognise the past and present harm done to the Black community and seek transformative change. In the words of Fred Hampton, one may succeed in jailing the revolutionaries, but one cannot jail the revolution itself.



(2000) ‘Overview: Critical Resistance to the Prison-Industrial Complex.’ Social Justice. 27(3) (81), pp. 1-5.

Ahmed, H., 2019. How Private Prisons Are Profiting Under The Trump Administration – Center For American Progress. [online] Center for American Progress. Available at: <https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2019/08/30/473966/private-prisons-profiting-trump-administration/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Bozelko, C., 2017. Prison Labor: Laws & Wages Make It Close to Slavery, Give Working Prisoners Dignity and Decent Wages. [online] Nationalreview.com. Available at: <https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/01/prison-labor-laws-wages/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Breen, Jessica. (2008) ‘Prisoners’ Families and the Ripple Effects of Imprisonment.’ Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 97(385), pp. 59–71.

Davis, Angela Y., and Dylan Rodriguez. (2000) ‘The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation.’ Social Justice, 27 (3) (81), pp. 212–218.

Desilver, D., Lipka, M. and Fahmy, D. (2020.) 10 Things We Know About Race and Policing In The U.S. [online] Pew Research Center. Available at: <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/03/10-things-we-know-about-race-and-policing-in-the-u-s/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Duru, N. Jeremi, (2004) ‘The Central Park Five, the Scottsboro Boys, and the Myth of the Bestial Black Man’. Cardozo Law Review 25, p. 1315.

Eisenhour, A., 2019. Missing The (Ara)Mark on Divestment. [online] The Princetonian. Available at: <https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2019/04/missing-the-aramark-on-divestment> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Equal Justice Initiative. 2020. Criminal Justice Reform, Equal Justice Initiative. [online] Available at: <https://eji.org/criminal-justice-reform/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Grabiner, Gene. (2016) ‘Who Polices the Police?’ Social Justice, 43(2) (144), pp. 58–79.

Gross, S., Possley, M. and Stephens, K., 2017. Race and Wrongful Convictions in The United States, National Registry of Exonerations, [online] Law.umich.edu. Available at: <http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Hadar Aviram. (2015) ‘Are Private Prisons to Blame for Mass Incarceration and Its Evils? Prison Conditions, Neoliberalism, and Public Choice’, Fordham Urban Law Journal 39, p.6.

Flexon, J., D’Alessio S., Stolzenberg L. and Greenleaf R. (2019).  ‘Interracial encounters with the police: findings from the NCVS police-public contact survey’, Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 17(4), pp. 299-320.

Kaba, Mariame. (2020). Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish The Police. [online] The New York Times. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html>. [Accessed 5 July 2020].

Mallory, Jason L. (2015) ‘Denying Pell Grants to Prisoners: Race, Class, and the Philosophy of Mass Incarceration.’ International Social Science Review, 90(1), pp. 1–27.

Mason, C., 2012. Too Good to Be True- Private Prisons In America. [online] Sentencingproject.org. Available at: <https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Too-Good-to-be-True-Private-Prisons-in-America.pdf> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

McCarthy, Niall. 2018. The World’s Most Overcrowded Prison Systems. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/01/26/the-worlds-most-overcrowded-prison-systems-infographic/#15b42a6b1372> [Accessed 5 July 2020].

McGrew, A. and Hanks, A., 2017. It’s Time to Stop Using Inmates for Free Labor. [online] Talk Poverty. Available at: <https://talkpoverty.org/2017/10/20/want-prison-feel-less-like-slavery-pay-inmates-work/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Michelle S. Jacobs, (2017). ‘The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence’, & Mary J. Women & L. 24(1), pp.39-100.

Palamar, Joseph J et al. (2015). ‘Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk for Arrest and Socio-Economic Disparities in Use.’ Drug and Alcohol Dependence 149, pp.108-116.

Peyton, N. and Moloney, A., 2020. George Floyd: America’s Racial Inequality in Numbers, Thomson Reuters Foundation [online] news.trust.org. Available at: <https://news.trust.org/item/20200601213023-p1dkx/?source=gep> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Raza, A. E. (2011). ‘Legacies of the Racialization of Incarceration: From Convict-Lease to the Prison Industrial Complex.’ Journal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies 11, pp. 159-170.

Ryan Carlsen. (2010). ‘The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010: How Fair Is It?’ Pub. Interest L. Rptr. 16 (1), pp.17-26.

Sainato, M., 2020. Why Are So Many People Dying in US Prisons And Jails. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/26/us-prisons-jails-inmate-deaths> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Sawyer, W. and Wagner, P., 2020. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. [online] Prisonpolicy.org. Available at: <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Sawyer, W., 2020. Ten Key Facts About Policing: Highlights from Our Work. [online] Prisonpolicy.org. Available at: <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/06/05/policingfacts/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Small, Deborah. (2001). ‘The War on Drugs Is a War on Racial Justice.’ Social Research, 68(3), pp. 896–903.

Wagner, P. and Bertram, W., 2020. “What Percent of The U.S. Is Incarcerated?” (And Other Ways to Measure Mass Incarceration). [online] Prisonpolicy.org. Available at: <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/01/16/percent-incarcerated/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Weitzer R., Brunson R. (2015). ‘Policing Different Racial Groups in the United States’, CPS, 2(35) pp. 129-145.

West, C. and Johnson, K., 2013. Sexual Violence in The Lives of African American Women. [online] Vawnet.org. Available at: <https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_SVAAWomenRevised.pdf> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Worth Rises, (2019).  Report on the Prisoner’s Industrial Complex: Mapping the Private Sector Players, Available at: <https://worthrises.org/picreport2019> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

This post was originally published on LSE Human Rights.