How Mass Incarceration Has Shaped HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: racism, criminal justice, Mass Incarceration, Heather Ann Thompson
Historian Heather Ann Thompson describes mass incarceration in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as being “without international parallel or historical precedent.” In 2006, for instance, “one in every thirty-one U.S. residents was under some form of correction supervision, such as in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.” Despite this, Thompson asserts, “historians have largely ignored the mass incarceration of the late twentieth century and have not yet begun to sort out its impact on the social, economic, and political evolution of the postwar period.”
People of color have been affected the most, with “African American men experiencing the highest imprisonment rate of all racial groups.” At the turn of the millennium, there were 188,500 more Black men and women in “penal institutions than in institutions of higher learning.”
Thompson draws connections between mass incarceration and the decline of the American labor movement in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Convict labor, largely ended by the mid-twentieth century, has returned. Thirty-six states now grant “private companies complete access to prison labor.” Well-known brands like Starbucks, Walmart, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Allstate, and many others have leased convict labor in our time.
Thompson argues that the same forces demanding access to unfree labor are also the ones backing “aggressively antilabor” politics. For example, a Texas circuit board maker, an Oregon linen service, a Georgia recycling plant, and Konica’s photocopy repair division all shifted from minimum wage labor or better to convict labor, which pays as little as 25 cents an hour.
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