The American Prison Pipeline

The Black Spotlight
8 min readJul 17, 2020

“The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison. There are thus real and often quite complicated connections between the deindustrialization of the economy — a process that reached its peak during the 1980s — and the rise of mass imprisonment, which also began to spiral during the Reagan-Bush era. However, the demand for more prisons was represented to the public in simplistic terms. More prisons were needed because there was more crime. Yet many scholars have demonstrated that by the time the prison construction boom began, official crime statistics were already falling.”

-Angela Y. Davis, Political Activist, Author, Philosopher, Educator, Founder of Critical Resistance, Prison Abolitionist, Black Feminist Thinker, Lenin Peace Prize Recipient

Photo by Siviwe Kapteyn on Unsplash


The War on Drugs, a term coined under President Richard Nixon in 1971, was an American campaign to reduce the illegal drug trade in America. Policies were created to discourage the production, distribution and consumption of certain drugs but the biggest public display of the campaign was the massive amounts of low-level street arrests. Administrations such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy found it pertinent to increase the scale of law enforcement activity at the street level and to expand the criminal justice system. The increase in federal expenditure to the initiative tripled the rate of drug distribution arrests in the proceeding decade. At that time the rate of arrests for Black people was 7.7 times higher than that of white men . The goal of increasing drug arrests had increased at the expense of increasing the prevalence of racial disparity in the American legal system. Even though African Americans use fewer drugs than their white counterparts (five times less for marijuana and three times less for cocaine), Black people make up over 50% of drug convictions for correctional institutions . Research has also shown that African Americans are less likely to use illegal substances and be drug dependent than other racial groups before the age of 25 but there is a flip in the difference after the age of 25 . Yet young Black men still face higher incarceration rates.

While the War on Drugs campaign is not the first or the only American initiative that unjustly increased the chances of wrongful arrests and incarcerations of Black people, it is deemed by many scholars have marked the first major shift in the American legal system in recent history. Following the campaign, the mass movement for prison privatization, the 1994 Crime Bill, and continued discriminatory policies being passed have dramatically increased the disproportionate number of arrests and incarceration of Black bodies. Black people such as Archie Williams, Jimmie Gardner, and the Central Park Five have been wrongfully convicted for decades, being stripped of their rights, freedoms and life with their families for crimes they had not committed. Black people are stereotyped as more hostile and prone to criminal activity so police officers view minorities, whether consciously or unconsciously, as the atypical offender resulting in law enforcement patronizing minority groups more frequently. Being ill-equipped to face litigation, often being cornered into taking plea deals, Black people are pushed into the prison pipeline with little room for appeal, further investigation and resources for self-preservation within the system. Today racial bias in law enforcement is apparent now more than ever with video accounts of illegal stops, arrests, chokings, warrants, break-ins amongst many other actions now leading to an increased number of Black deaths in addition to incarceration.

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash


The United States of America is the global leader in incarceration with double the prison population of China at about 2.2 million inmates . The historically disproportionate arrest and conviction of African Americans are among many of the issue’s members of the Black community face. In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40% . Awareness of the disparity leads black people residing in disadvantaged communities to believe that incarceration is a part of their life course. Unfortunately, that mentality stimulates the release of inhibition to committing criminal acts, leading to an increased risk of incarceration. African Americans have been documented to affect health before, during and after the incarceration. Imprisonment is a public health concern because incarceration also negatively affects the health outcomes of family members and community members in addition to widening health inequality between the United States demographics. The complexities of mass incarceration of Black people are further accentuated with the War on Drugs, punitive sentencing, and mental health stigma.

The Facts and Figures:

Blacks make up about 12% of the U.S adult population and Whites make up 63% of the U.S adult population. However, Black Americans make up 33% of the sentenced prison population while Whites make up 30%.

Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.

Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre‐K‐12 public education in the last thirty years.

African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.

Photo by Nicolas Steave on Unsplash


The health effects of incarceration must be considered a public health issue. Unfortunately, not many studies have been conducted in the past decade that has analyzed the duration of disease, the type of incarceration relating to health, or the health outcomes among different inmate demographics. With more research being conducted to understand the complexities of inmate health, matters are become more important due to the increased prevalence of infectious disease and chronic conditions in correctional facilities. Prisons prove to be breeding grounds for communicable diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and most recently COVID-19 . Also, chronic conditions such as diabetes, substance abuse and mental health disorders need to be better addressed. Those in jail have depressive symptoms, declining life satisfaction and have a greater chance of engaging in self-harm behaviors.

The health outcomes of the inmate’s family need to be considered. Paternal incarceration is strongly associated with behavioral and developmental issues in a child, often leading to poor outcomes such as substance abuse or aggression. The National Survey of Children’s Health reported a link to increased depression, anxiety, obesity, and asthma. Women with incarcerated partners experience significant mental health deterioration due to high stress in managing a household. Mothers do not receive the necessary support for raising their children and have to deal with the stigma of having an incarcerated spouse. The socioeconomic effects of paternal incarceration on their partners and families need to be remediated by social service workers, social scientists and non-profit organizations offering support services. Some studies have alluded to maternal incarceration association with a decreased educational attainment, negative criminal justice outcomes, and poor health .

Unfortunately, the quality of health care varies greatly in correctional facilities. Prisons are more privatized, so they have limited resource availability, and having to deal with an increase in treating for chronic diseases has made it difficult for the facilities to keep the same level of health care. Overcrowding has made it more difficult to delineate medical services to prisoners, so judges have been releasing prisoners because overcrowding is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Immediately after release, treatment availability and outcomes significantly decrease. The formerly incarcerated are often released without medication or appointments for follow-ups. Due to the length of the prison sentence, once released, the former prisoners are less likely to have immediate access to a primary care physician, so there is a developed reliance on emergency departments to provide health care. Mental health problems not treated or that have been developed in prison dramatically lessen the chances of released patients with chronic conditions receiving the appropriate medical attention. More adversity intending to health care issues is faced by former inmates that do not have housing, experience difficulty in finding employment and lack family support upon release.

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash


The roots of mass incarceration can be traced back to when bondage was used as a form of punishment against Black bodies during slavery. Even after the abolition of slavery in 1865 the American legal system was used to manipulate the newly liberated Black people through racial, economic, and social control. Decades of discriminatory imprisonment has led to a broken and fragmented legal system continuing to incarcerate Black people at significantly higher rates. More data would aid in the understanding of mass incarceration, especially in its relation to health outcomes. Policymakers, legal advocates, and community leaders have to take action to lessen overly aggressive policing and interventions made to reduce the number of racial biases within law enforcement. Community initiatives need to be made to review arrests made by police officers, discuss specific problems within the neighborhood and spread awareness of the negative health repercussions. Federally funded programs need to be put into place to help those released from prisons to follow up on their medical conditions and aid in effective reintegration into society all for the benefit of increasing physiological and psychological.

To do your part you can partner with orgs such as Critical Resistance, Reform Alliance, Solitary Watch and Center For Prison Reform. You should check out these platforms for more information on racial inequalities in the American prison system and on what you can do to make a difference. In addition to getting more information, you can sign petitions to for legal action to be taken for those wrongfully imprisoned, reach out to representatives to have unjust laws changed, write to the incarcerated so that, inquire with your local police department statistics on arrests and shootings. Some other things you can do is to call to defund and abolish police in favor of community alternatives also would greatly reduce the number of unjust and racially charged incarcerations. You should check out these platforms for more information on racial inequalities in the American prison system and on what you can do to make a difference.



The Black Spotlight

Celebrating Africa and the Diaspora while shedding light on the topics and issues affecting them. A proud student of Africana Studies. Email: harrynof@gmail