Mass Incarceration

Written by Gautam Badlani


Mass incarceration refers to the large-scale imprisonment of a considerable section of the population. This term is particularly used in the context of the United States of America, where a large number of people have been locked up in federal, state and local prisons. Presently, more than 2.3 million people are locked up in US jails whereas 4 decades ago there were only 3,50,000 prisoners. This massive rise in incarceration rate is known as mass incarceration.Mass incarceration is based on the idea that crimes can be discouraged by subjecting criminals to punishments and suffering.



When any government adopts a “hard on crime” stance then it results in mass incarceration. People are punished disproportionately and longer punishments are given even for thesmallest of crimes. Bails are made very expensive and difficult to secure.Some countries such as the USA also have mandatory minimum sentencing which increases the rate of incarceration.

Racial discrimination is also one of the major causes of mass incarceration. In the United States of America, African Americans form the majority of the prisoners. Black people are 5 times more likely to get arrested in the US than white people. Giving too much authority to the police also increases the incarceration rates as people falsely confess to the crimes fearing police brutality. Excess surveillance by the police, targeting the minority communities and unregulated interrogations also leads to mass incarceration.



The United States of America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. In the past few decades, the US has come up with various harsh policies which aim at reducing crimes through punishment rather than rehabilitation. This has resulted in several people ending up behind the bars.The US has been putting men, women, foreigners and migrants in prisons.  The US has an incarceration rate of 655 per 1,00,000 population.[1]Most of the people are locked up for non-violent crimes. There have also been allegations of black people being disproportionately punished by the law enforcement agencies for non-violent and petty crimes[2].

The situation in the US deteriorated largely when the US administration declared a war on drugs. People were jailed even for the smallest of crimes, particularly if it was a drug-related crime. The police were given a lot of power and the rate of incarceration increased tremendously, particularly in case of black communities.  The justice system of the US has been designed to discriminate against the black and brown people. The presence of such systematic bias in the justice system makes it very difficult to resolve the problem of mass incarceration.



Mass incarceration leads to overcrowding in prisons which in turn increases the risk of infections and diseases among the prisoners. This leads to poor living conditions for the prisoners.It also increases the rates of prison fights which puts the lives of the prisoners in danger.

Mass incarcerations also puts a lot of financial burden on the state’s coffers. The public expenditure on prisons increases substantially due to mass incarceration. Many times the prisoners face mental health issues. Due to the financial constraints, the prison authorities unable to take proper care of the prisoners and the condition of the prisoners further deteriorates.

Mass incarceration further weakens the conditions of the vulnerable communities. Having a criminal or prison record makes it difficult for them to get jobs and employment. At the same time, they become more likely to be harassed by the law enforcement agencies. The families and children of the prisoners are also affected and experience several long-term disadvantages such as fall in societal status, mental health issues, etc.Children get mentally detached from their incarcerated parents.



Instead of subjecting criminals to harsh punishments, more emphasis should be given to their rehabilitation. No substantial evidence has been found indicating that mass incarceration leads to a fall in crime rates.Several countries have taken cognizance of the fact that mass incarceration does not necessarily leads to a reduction in crimes. Even in the US, there have been certain positive developments with states such as Texas scrapping off several pro-incarceration and discriminatory policies. Several Democrats as well as Republicans have acknowledged that mass incarceration is a big problem for the US. While there have been a lot of discussions about the problems and disadvantages of mass incarceration, the larger question regarding what to do to resolve such a problem remains unanswered.





Gautam Badlani,

Chanakya National Law University


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