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“The legal battle against segregation is won, but the community battle goes on.” -Dorothy Day, 1956.
Following Michelle Alexander’s argument, I argue that the War on Drugs is not only a new form of Jim Crow era discrimination, but also responsible for systemic racism in our criminal justice system perpetrated through the institutionalization of a prison industrial complex.
The institutionalization of prison systems in the US begun in the eighteenth century, especially after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon design, which enabled detaining a large number of prisoners.
Legal historian Harry Elmer Barnes accounts that crime, as per the Act of 1788, included treason and felonies: The Act of 1788 for ‘punishing Treasons and Felonies, and for the better regulating of proceedings in cases of Felony,’ there were sixteen capital crimes enumerated on the statute books-treason, murder, rape, buggery, burglary, robbery of a church, breaking and entry, robbery of person, robbery and intimidation in dwelling houses, arson, malicious maiming, forgery, counterfeiting, theft of chose in action, second offense for other felonies, and aiding and abetting any of the above crimes (Barnes, 1921, p. The crimes listed here are (for the most part) similar to what society deems as deviant in our present times, although possession of drugs or narcotics was not a crime under the Act of 1788.
The important difference between committing a crime in 1788 in opposition to today is the degree of punishment.Even though the practice is against the Fourth and Eighth Amendments of our Constitution, its continuation suggests a continuation of Jim Crow era laws, albeit in more complex ways.Mass incarceration, carried on through the War on Drugs, has severe collateral damage on minority communities as well.Black Codes and Jim Crow laws increased the severity of petty crimes, and acts such as loitering or jaywalking resulted in imprisonment.A majority of newly freed African Americans found themselves in prison, and back on the plantations.The stocks, pillory, whipping, branding and the ducking-stool were the normal methods used for imposing punishment.For the lesser offenses fines were prescribed, with an alternate sentence of corporal punishment if the fine was not paid. Imprisonment was rarely employed as a method of punishment.Sending violators to the gallows was very common in the early years.In cases where the perpetrator’s death sentence was not issued, Barnes (1921) explains: Corporal punishment of another and less severe type was employed.It is largely responsible for the devastation of urban communities, the rise of the super ghettos in cities across the country, and the institutionalization of a prison industrial complex.This essay examines the patterns of systemic racism perpetrated through the War on Drugs and mass incarceration policies.