Racial Inequality and The Prison Industrial Complex

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1106 words

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Social inequality on the basis of race and ethnicity continues to afflict America. Slavery has evolved into the mass incarceration of marginalized groups and the exploitation of them for free prison labor. The prison industrial complex aims to make profit off the backs of black people, promoting an unjust justice system. A justice system structured against blacks and people of color, to detain and confine as many able bodies as possible. Through a negative overrepresentation in the media, unfair social policies, and discrimination, impoverished blacks are destined to fall into the prison system. The 13th documentary brings to light these atrocities and helps to educate the viewer on just what does on in the prison system and how profitable it is. The system creates outward effects on society, conditioning people to be prejudice and to discriminate based on color. Maintaining the status quo and keeping marginalize groups subservient and under the control of the majority. The 13th amendment was a great step forward in race relations. However, through the abuse of a loophole within its very contents, the documentary presents a further need for debate and discussion on how we can advance easing the tensions.

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The 13th documentary highlights systemic racism, fostered by the United States’ prison system. From the birth of the United States of America to the present, blacks and other minority groups face prejudice and discrimination from the dominant group. Institutionalized discrimination has plagued America, promoting the preservation of the status quo: the vilification of blacks, racial-ethnic stratification, and the abuse of minority groups. In 1865, the 13th amendment passed abolishing slavery. However, racial discrimination merely evolved, transforming into the mass incarceration and exploitation of black people in America.

In 2017, the prison population in America has grown by more than 750% since 1972, with about 40% of the prison population comprised of black men. There is a disproportionate number of incarcerated blacks than any other race. The prison industrial complex replaces slavery as a means of subordinating black people and exploiting them for free labor. This process is facilitated by the very amendment which granted black people their freedom. “…neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party should be convicted, shall exist within the United States”. A loophole in the amendment was immediately utilized to imprison newly freed slaves. The process of mass incarceration is contingent on the vilification and criminalization of blacks. There needed to be a method in which to detain black people in mass through a defensible means. Black people were being arrested for minor crimes, in which they had to provide servitude to rebuild the South’s economy after the Civil War. Furthermore, black males were and still are being overly represented within the media as these threatening and/or brutish entities. These depictions of black men in the media as dangerous and menacing aided in justifying their confinement. The media’s adverse depictions of black men end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; where upon seeing themselves characterized as criminals, black people then begin to act more criminal. The “war on drugs” campaign during the Nixon administration, continued by Reagan, sought to rapidly increase the prison population through criminalization of crack and cocaine. This new iteration of racial discrimination was just another approach to increasing the prison population. Drug dependency was deemed as criminal behavior instead of a public health concern.

The hard stance on “crime” Nixon took was an essential part to the “southern strategy,” in which Nixon’s campaign converted Southern whites Democrats into Republicans. Republicans would appeal to the white voters by enacting policies which supported racism against black people. This had a direct effect on the outcome of subsequent elections, leading into the elections of Reagan and H.W. Bush. For example, an ad campaign centered on Willie Horton, a black man who was convicted of murder allowed to walk free via weekend passes. Dukakis supported and defended this policy. During the time Horton could walk free, he killed a man and raped his girlfriend. This ad campaign ultimately illustrated Dukakis as being soft on crime. Dukakis had a significant lead over bush before this ad campaign was released. Bush would eventually overtake Dukakis and win the election. Democrats were compelled to take a hard stance on drugs if they wanted to win the election. They needed to adopt a more centrist view, aligning themselves more closely with that of a capitalist perspective on crime.

The prison industrial complex is comprised of a multilayered system to house and hold as many bodies as possible. Instead of being a correctional institution, the prison system’s objective is to keep its population at capacity. At the first layer you have arrests. Black people are being targeted for arrests and charged with crimes, occasionally some they didn’t commit. They will then be jailed and detained. Most of these people cannot post bail, as they are of a low socioeconomic status. In accordance to Gilbert’s theory on class, the criminal justice system targets the working poor and underclass. The system then exploits them, setting bails in which they cannot pay and offering plea deals for crimes they may or may not have committed. Plea deals are effective in imprisoning more people due to the nature of the agreement. If you accept the plea deal, you have a generally low sentence. However, if you take it to trial and end up losing, the prosecutors can then arrange for you to have extremely a lengthy sentence. People in prisons are kept in horrid conditions, with exposure to violence and maltreatment. Once an individual completes their time in jail, the likelihood for recidivism is increased because they weren’t rehabilitated. The justice systems further enhance the number of bodies that flow through the prison system by having newly released prisoners eventually return.

At the macro-level, society is primarily impacted from the increase in racial tension and the stereotyping of black people. For example, Trayvon Martin was walking through a predominantly white neighborhood when George Zimmerman saw him and thought he looked suspicious. Zimmerman ultimately ended up getting into an altercation with Martin and took the 17-year old’s life. Because of the preconceived notions and generalizations Zimmerman had of Martin, a young life was taken. Education is the biggest way we can combat social inequality in the World. Teaching young people, a more multicultural view and about the prison industrial complex to inform voters to make a difference. 

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In conclusion, my biggest take away from the documentary was the way in which the system is structured against certain types of marginalized groups like black people. How unjust the treatment of these people is, as if they are less than human.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Racial Inequality and the Prison Industrial Complex. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“Racial Inequality and the Prison Industrial Complex.” GradesFixer, 30 Aug. 2022,
Racial Inequality and the Prison Industrial Complex. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Sept. 2023].
Racial Inequality and the Prison Industrial Complex [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Aug 30 [cited 2023 Sept 27]. Available from:
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