Until We Resolve Our Racially Unjust Incarceration System, We Cannot Be at Peace

Competitors in the National Urban League’s annual Hackathon work to develop digital solutions to social justice challenges. 
© national urban league


This year, my home state of Louisiana, United States of America, enacted common-sense prison reforms that will reduce the incarcerated population by 10 per cent and save the state more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the next 10 years. One local sheriff’s response to the reforms encapsulates why they are so desperately needed: he complained that he would be losing a source of free labour. Referring to non-violent offenders, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish said, “They’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that, where we save money.”1 Video of his offensive statement went viral on social media, with many comparing the prison labour system to slavery.

Incarceration in the United States has become less about justice, and more about the profit motive. In addition to the billion-dollar prison labour industry, private prisons and for-profit companies continue to thrive, providing services and products to government prisons and creating a powerful financial incentive for more and longer prison sentences.

Companies supplying goods and services such as commissary supplies and telephone service for correctional facilities bring in almost as much money as private prisons, according to the non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative. The profit motive taints nearly every aspect of prison life, ripping families apart for no reason justifiable by community safety standards. For example, costly “video visitation” has replaced free in-person family visits in some facilities. Private firms charge more than $1.30 per minute for screen time.

Among the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which came into force on 1 January 2016, are:

  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG 1).
  • Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (SDG 8).
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries (SDG 10).
  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (SDG 16).

The mass incarceration crisis in the United States impedes the achievement of these goals, as well as access to global citizenship. Incarceration limits earning power and the opportunity to lift oneself out of poverty for decades after one’s release. Even among the minority of ex-prisoners who can find work, fewer than 25 per cent are able to rise above the bottom 20 per cent of wage earners, according to research by sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Pettit.2 And these burdens of poverty fall most heavily on communities of colour. With just five per cent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s prison population. People of colour, while comprising only 37 per cent of the population of the United States, represent 67 per cent of the incarcerated. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.

Of note, in the light of Sheriff Prator’s comments, Louisiana’s incarceration rate is even higher and more racially-imbalanced than that of the nation as a whole. Eight out of every 1,000 Louisianans are incarcerated—about double the national average—and Black Louisianans outnumber whites in prison by about two to one. While our racially imbalanced and bloated prison population generates billions for private companies, it costs United States taxpayers $80 billion a year—free car washes for the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office notwithstanding.

Earlier this year the National Urban League introduced our Main Street Marshall Plan: From Poverty to Prosperity—a detailed blueprint for economic development and institutional reform designed to transform impoverished neighbourhoods and structural inequities in America. Among our recommendations for criminal justice reform are:

  • Identify and enact policies directed towards reducing the federal and state prison populations.
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and increase judicial discretion through bipartisan legislation such as the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act.
  • Pass the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act as introduced in the United States Senate or the End Racial Profiling Act as introduced in the United States House of Representatives.
  • Eliminate the incentive to incarcerate through the use of private prisons.

Shortly after the National Urban League introduced the Main Street Marshall Plan, United States Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017. Based on a 2015 proposal by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the bill is essentially the reverse of the incentives provided in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—often called simply “the Crime Bill” of 1994. Rather than incentivizing states to increase prison populations, the legislation would pay states to decrease them, while keeping down crime. It is a creative policy proposal that would serve as a powerful tool to accelerate state efforts in reversing the damaging impact of mass incarceration. In early October 2017, United States Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced legislation aimed at easing sentences for some non-violent offenders, such as for drug crimes, while enhancing penalties for violent and more serious violations.

Ending our mass incarceration crisis will be a heavy political lift. A 2015 examination by the Washington Post found that private prison companies have “funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts.”3 United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions—whose two former Senate aides are now private prison lobbyists— announced earlier this year a reversal of President Obama’s directive to phase out the use of private prisons. But there are glimmers of hope. A bipartisan coalition of senators has backed the Grassley-Durbin bill, and White House advisor Jared Kushner has met privately with senators on the issue of criminal justice reform.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said upon completion of the Selma to Montgomery March on 25 March 1965, “the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”4 Until we resolve our racially unjust incarceration system, we cannot be at peace with ourselves.    


  1. Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Louisiana sheriff’s remarks evoke slavery, critics say”, New York Times, 12 October 2017. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/us/prison-reform-steve-prator.html.
  2. Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, “Incarceration & social inequality”, Dædalus (Summer 2010). Available from https://www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus/10_summer_western.pdf.
  3. Michael Cohen, “How for-profit prisons have become the biggest lobby no one is talking about”, Washington Post, 28 April 2015. Available from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/28/how-for-prof....
  4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our God Is Marching On!”, 25 March 1965. Available from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching.