Mass Incarceration: Is Change Gonna Come ?


By James Kilgore

Mass incarceration is trending. Criminal justice never even got on the radar during the 2012 presidential election; now it’s big-time news. The president and the pope have ventured behind bars. Politicians from Rand Paul to Cory Booker have sounded off on the need to end the War on Drugs and de-racialize criminal justice. The Koch brothers are on board, too. For those of us who have spent years in prison and many more campaigning for an end to mass incarceration, people in high places paying attention raises all kinds of possibilities. Yet even with all this change of heart, it’s hard to keep faith in a change of system.

To begin with, promises around criminal justice at the presidential level don’t have a great track record. Remember the closing of Guantanamo? Even the recent release of 6,000 people from federal prisons constitutes a baby step. Plus, about a third of them are being transferred not to freedom but to the ICE deportation queue. Many more released under this quick-fix initiative will end up in dead-end, impoverished situations.

Starry-eyed fiscal conservatives see corrections budgets as soft targets for cutting government spending. They just don’t get it. Ending mass incarceration will not save money. The prison-industrial complex reflects a national strategy for dealing with poverty, inequality, and racial conflict. We are caging the unemployed, the homeless, and those with mental health and substance abuse issues. Meeting the needs of this population requires not slashing corrections but reallocating resources into public housing, employment, and treatment. Decarceration on the cheap means replicating the massive Skid Row of Los Angeles in every city and town in the country. We have already segregated our cities via gentrification. If we empty the prisons without supporting those released, we will create what activist Jazz Hayden calls “open air prisons”—over-policed communities of color devoid of opportunities for residents.

Ultimately, ending mass incarceration requires more than innovative policy packages and changes in legislation. It demands a new mindset. Mass incarceration mushroomed from a vast media campaign to promote “law and order.” Manufactured racialized images of drug dealers, thugs, and gangbangers spawned white moral panic. Nancy Reagan went on tour with her “Just Say No” message. The largely discredited Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program sent police into middle schools and high schools to win the hearts and minds of children. Fear made “soft on crime” the most damning label any post-Reagan political candidate could imagine. Can we re-brand “soft on decarceration” with the same moral authority? I doubt it.

If we are to return the United States to 1980 incarceration levels, the approximate point where all this madness began, we would have to cut the prison and jail population by about 80% or 1.7 million people. That would bring the United States to the incarceration rate of the United Kingdom, the next most punitive state among the established capitalist powers. We can’t arrive back to the future by picking the “low-hanging fruit” of those with nonviolent drug offenses. They are only 16% of those in prison. Thousands of people the system has labeled “violent” need a re-think as well. Are Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio ready for this? Again, I doubt it. Even Bernie Sanders’s latest bill on prisons contains nothing that will significantly reduce prison populations.

When a politician puts forward a plan to “Free the Mass Incarcerated 1.7 Million,” then the serious talk has begun. In the meantime, let’s use the trendiness of mass incarceration to make whatever changes are possible and keep building a social movement that can pressure for needed tweaks in the legislation as part of a much bigger and more difficult process of fighting for systemic change.

James Kilgore is a writer, activist, and educator based in Urbana, Illinois. His latest book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time. Contact him at, @waazn1 or

This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.



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Starting a Local Chapter from Scratch (9pm Eastern)

October 04, 2016 · 8 rsvps
Webinar, RSVP required for sign in information

So you are now a member of DSA, but there is no local chapter where you live. You are thinking of starting a local chapter, but you're not quite sure how to do it.

In Starting a Local Chapter from Scratch you will learn:

  • how other locals got started in recent years
  • how to find out who is already a member
  • the importance of a comrade
  • how to recruit new members
  • the importance of a mentor
  • how to become a recognized organizing committee
  • how to become a chartered local
  • what works best to bring new people in.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.


  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt 607-280-7649.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt 608-355-6568.
  6. You can participate in every webinar or just attend once in a while.
  7. Workshops will generally be on weekends or evenings.
  8. Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance -- by midnight Sunday for Tuesday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).


DSA New Member Orientation Call

October 19, 2016 · 22 rsvps
DSA New Member Orientation

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.