Mass Incarceration and Resilience

The practice of “mass incarceration” developed uniquely in the United States in the last three decades of the twentieth century, although, as historian Elizabeth Hinton points out, policies were unwittingly put in motion with the shift from the War on Poverty in 1964 to the War on Crime in 1965. Still, before the 1970s the proportion of the imprisoned in the United States resembled that of other countries. Beginning in the 1970s, however, and over the course of the next two decades, specific laws aimed at pursuing a “War on Drugs” caused the number of incarcerated persons to grow exponentially. In 1970 there were 352,000 people in U.S. prisons and jails. However, by 1990 there were 1.5 million incarcerated, and by 2010 the number reached 2.8 million. Politicians wanted to appear to be “tough on crime,” and many of the new anti-drug laws included provisions requiring “mandatory sentencing.” This meant that individual judges could not consider the background, age, or extenuating circumstances in determining the punishment for those convicted of “breaking the law.” The result is that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The racial bias in the criminal justice system has meant that overwhelmingly U. S. jails and prisons are filled with African American and Latino people. The Sentencing Project, the Vera Institute, Families against Mandatory Minimums, the Prison Policy Initiative, The Innocence Project, the Equal Justice Initiative, and other criminal justice reform organizations have emerged over the past few decades in response to mass incarceration. Such groups gather information on the negative impact that incarceration has had on individuals, families, communities, and the entire society, and they lobby state and federal officials to change the laws that keep nonviolent offenders behind bars. These groups foster resiliency among people who have been caught up in a criminal justice system subject to politicians’ ambitions and private corporations seeking to profit from mass incarceration.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander



  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Black Family in Age of Mass Incarceration.” Atlantic Monthly, October 2015.
  • Harris, LaShawn. “New Perspectives on Criminal (In)Justice and Incarceration.” Journal of African American History 100, no. 3 (2015): 448-460.


  • 13th (Netflix)

“In this thought-provoking documentary, scholars, activists and politicians analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.”

“This series traces the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a Black Bronx teen who spent three horrific years in jail, despite not being convicted of a crime.”

  • The Innocence Files (Netflix) 

“The Innocence Project unravels missteps and deceit in a series of wrongful convictions, exposing the injustice inflicted on victims and the accused.”

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


Links- Related Organizations and Projects

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones



Go on the websites of exhibits of artistic work done by incarcerated men and women and discuss the power of the arts and creativity as forms of resistance and resilience.

Black Mama’s Bailouts: