Disenfranchisement in the Era of Mass Incarceration

In light of the upcoming election, I think it’s important to talk a bit about the connection between disenfranchisement and mass incarceration in the United States. Since watching the 2016 Netflix documentary called 13th and reading Michelle Alexander’s fifth chapter from her book The New Jim Crow, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways mass incarceration will affect the results of the election in just a few days.

Here are a few things that I never knew about mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement that I believe are important to share with you:

  • Although the United States holds only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners
  • According to Alexander (2012), “…the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated” (p.193). And considering the fact that many prisons are built in rural areas that are predominantly white, these areas gain higher political representation as a result
  • According to the ACLU, there are roughly 5.85 million people with felonies in the U.S. who are without the right to vote

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, disenfranchisement refers to the prevention of a person or group’s right to vote. Political disenfranchisement is not a new tactic when it comes to the deliberate oppression of communities of color by the federal government. As Alexander (2012) points out, we’ve seen various forms of the political disenfranchisement of Blacks throughout history reflected in policies such as poll taxes, literacy tests, voter ID laws, etc. Felony disenfranchisement is no different.

It’s undeniable that the cradle-to-prison pipeline in the age of mass incarceration was created to keep minorities, especially African Americans, oppressed. It seems to be especially successful in keeping communities of color from having a say in who gets to lead our country, and subsequently, which policies are put into place. This feeds into the continuous cycle of Blacks in America being treated as second class citizens.

If we think of the election of each President of the United States as being selected by the American people, but the selection process deliberately leaves out a large portion of Black voters, who are we considering to be “the American people?”

2 thoughts on “Disenfranchisement in the Era of Mass Incarceration

  1. I am aware that mass incarceration is a major issue in this country, but the idea that there are so many people of color populating prisons still sickens me to this day. Just watching the trailer to that Netflix movie infuriated me because the people in the prisons are not seen as equal members of society and when people do not see them, they become invisible. I want to watch that movie in order to have a better understanding of exactly what is happening that makes people think that this is an acceptable treatment for certain crimes but not others. We read how there is unequal sentencing among black, white, and brown bodies, but it seems like no one is questioning this, especially the white people who benefit from this. My initial idea of the prison system is that it was created to lock people up who were detriments to society, but I now know that its origins are more racialized than that. History made it so that it could disadvantage others based on their race on the grounds of criminality.

  2. I think it’s interesting that you bring up the issue of felonies and voting rights. That’s something we rarely talk about as being a problem, but considering it disproportionally affects people of color, it is! And it is interesting that a felony, who’s definition can often be very skewed, it worthy of taking away a person’s fundamental right to vote. I had a family friend that in his 20s, got too drunk one night and accidentally walked into the wrong person’s home…he eventually was charged with breaking and entering and is considered a felon as a result! (Note that this man is white and never spent a day in prison). In a similar light, petty drug crimes can result in decades spent in prison, and as a consequence millions of African Americans loose their right to vote.

What do you think? Join the conversation!