BEYOND BARS: Mass Incarceration—Transforming an Unconstitutional System

By Bro. Brad Broussard, Beeville, TX

Under the Thirteenth Amendment, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added).

The word ‘except’ here indicates that slavery and involuntary servitude were never abolished, but rather substituted for another iteration of enslavement—the present-day system of mass incarceration.

In my opinion, reform requires action at the Supreme Court level. If the Thirteenth Amendment were abolished, prisons all over America would have to turn their facilities into rehabilitation centers and/or self-help programs; guards would be replaced by social-workers and substance abuse counselors, and the current system would transform into what it should have been from the beginning—a righteous system aimed at helping the people. Today’s age of mass incarceration is controlled by classism and racism. Society’s knee-jerk response for all its ills seems to be prison: from mental illness to homelessness.

Black and Latino people are being herded into prisons on a massive scale. There’s been a class and race war upon people of color via the prison industrial complex ever since the Reagan Era. From police practices to sentencing, including administrative segregation and the death penalty, the system is racially discriminatory. But given its origins (again, look at the “except”), our country’s foundation is rooted in racism.

The prison system is not only unconstitutional, but also economically unfeasible to maintain. This is a fragile system. It’s about to crack very soon, as long as people continue organizing and demanding reform.

We need to keep pushing to replace the “tough-on-crime” approach with a “smart-on-crime” approach to reduce the number of people locked up. We know that the majority of people who are incarcerated can safely be managed within their community. Not only will taxpayers see savings for making the shift from prison to community services, but research shows we would also see a decrease in crime as well.

The current prison reform rhetoric focused on “non-violent offenders” distracts us from challenging the real reason for the mass incarceration crisis: violent crime. Drug offenders constitute only a quarter of our nation’s prisoners at the state level. While violent crime makes up a much larger share in state prisons—one half of all convicted prisoners. An effective response to the flawed system will require directly confronting the issue of violent crime and developing policy responses that can compete with the punitive approach that currently dominates criminal policy.

According to statistics by the Bureau of Prisons, 1.3 million people are currently held in state prisons, with approximately 731,200 in local jails, and 200,000 in federal prisons. Among those in state prisons, about half are serving time for violent offenses. Federal prisons are the only facilities in which drug offenders constitute a majority of prisoners, but federal prisons hold many fewer inmates overall.

If even less than a quarter (or, 500,000) of our nation’s more than 2.4 million prisoners were released tomorrow, the U.S. would still have the world’s largest prison system. Moreover, our prison system has grown so large in part because we have changed our sentencing policies for all offenders. We divert fewer offenders than we once did, send more of them to prison, and keep them in prison for much longer. An exclusive focus on the drug war and non-violent crime misses the larger issue of sentencing choices. This is why it is not enough to dismiss talk about violent crime by ignoring the significant role of violent crime in today’s prison boom.

Changing how the government (especially state governments) responds to all crimes will force our institutions to be accountable for their populations. Will we allow this unconstitutional system of mass incarceration to continue, or fight, push, and speak out for a change to the Constitution?


I am grateful to be a member of the NLG and a Guild Notes subscriber and we appreciate the chance to get our voices heard through this terrible fog that the system put in place for those incarcerated. That’s why I’m devoted to striving and pushing for Justice, to chisel away at the corruption that hinders so many in the penal system.

Thank you sincerely,

Bro. Brad

Jailhouse Advocate

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