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.



LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 66 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 30 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

April 04, 2017
· 85 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

What Is DSA? Training Call

April 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
· 28 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
· 23 rsvps

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.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 10 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.