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.



What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
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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.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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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.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-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. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

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Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

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September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.