The Criminal Injustice System:
Mass Incarceration & Racism

Roya Salehi
May 11, 2015 · 7 min read

The United States criminal justice system is magic. Like magic tricks that are all about illusions, prison systems create the illusion of social problems being solved, when in fact they are creating more problems in society.

At least, this is the claim of many advocates for prison reform, including longtime activist Angela Davis, the author of “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex” and a former University of California professor.

Although it may seem as if the criminal justice system doesn’t have anything up its sleeve, it does. It is hiding racism deep within the structures of our society, according to Davis, Rios, and other prison activists.

Racial Inequality:

Davis’s views are mirrored by Victor M. Rios, a UCSB sociology professor and author of the book “Punished.” Rios’s book explores the marginalization and punishment of young black and Latino boys. Rios writes that hypercriminalization occurs when an individual’s everyday style and behaviors are viewed as unlawful.

Rios wrote in his book that police stop people who may look like a criminal suspect. He noticed that people who were stopped and searched were generally non-white people. Police would look for evidence of criminal activity when the suspect had not done anything immediately illegal. In this way, law enforcement treats people of color as guilty until proven innocent instead of the other way around.

Some people say they are aware of hypercriminalization even though they have not experienced it themselves. For example, Erin Tyukody, a Santa Barbara City College student from Manhattan Beach, is an advocate for prison reform. Tyukody said that she feels that she has an advantage because of her white race. She affirmed she has never been hypercriminalized, though she has witnessed occurrences towards minority races.

Tyukody has seen this hypercriminalization so often that she said she uses the phrase, “‘DWB’, Driving While Black, to describe someone who has been pulled over without any apparent traffic violations.”

Tyukody’s fellow SBCC collegiate, Xavier Rivas, has had personal experiences with the criminal justice system when he went to a juvenile detention center for a probation violation. He grew up in a part of Fillmore that he described as having a strong gang affiliation and a black majority population. Rivas himself is El Salvadorian and Guatemalan.

Rivas had negative experiences with probation officers and correctional officers, but he mentioned police officers as particularly difficult. “They’re like robots, you know? You can’t really talk to them or reason with them,” he said. “They enforce the law. They're not the law, and sometimes they think they are.”

Despite this, he said he doesn’t feel like he has ever been criminalized specifically because of his race. “It was about the situation I’m in at the time,” he said. “Most of the times I’m either in a setting where a lot of people are drunk or I’m in a neighborhood where gangs are.”

He disagrees with Rios, Tyukody, and other prison reform advocates who argue that the U.S. criminal justice system is racist. “Just from my experience and what I’ve seen, I would say that 8 times out of 10 a person is going to jail because they deserved it and not just because of their race,” said Rivas.

However, according to research by Davis, race is an important factor. From the 1970s to today, the number of incarcerated persons has increased fourfold to reach a sizable population of over 2.3 million, and more than 70 percent of them were people of color.

In poorer communities, where the percent of people of color is usually higher as well, the quality of public education is rapidly deteriorating. Discipline takes the lead in this era of mass incarceration, leaving learning and education in its dust.

Rios said he blames schools in part for this trend. Teachers in poor neighborhoods begin to resemble prison guards more and more, and criminalization creeps beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and extends into everyday life and everyday social institutions.

The media and politicians have the most agenda-setting power in society today, said Rios. They have diverted attention away from the state’s inability to provide citizens proper solutions to the deeply seated economic, social, and political issues by developing people of color as the scapegoats. “I think we will always look for a criminal class to talk about, you know, a deviant class,” said Rios.

The expansion of the criminal justice system has dire social consequences, he continued. The prison industrial complex is costing society billions of dollars.

“It even affects students like you,” said Rios. “If we invest in prisons, and we’ve built 22 new prisons in California in the past 30 years but only two universities… if our money is going into prisons and not into schools, then you’re the one who has to cough up the tuition.”

Likewise, Davis argues that the penal system as a whole devours the social wealth that could be used to improve living standards in the United States.

On the other hand, in communities that can be described as privileged and dominantly white, much like the community Tyukody said she was raised in, “Higher education is the expectation. It’s not a reach,” she said.

Rios said that for many of the young black and Latino boys he studied, “prison may be a more likely prospect than going to college.”

Davis also asserts that the money used to build new prisons could go towards housing for the homeless, education, drug programs, health care, domestic abuse shelters, and more. Furthermore, in creating these social programs, society creates jobs in the process and thus improves the situation of the unemployed and impoverished.

“Our goal should be to really change our laws and to be more rehabilitative and focus more on social programs than having really high-for-profit prisons,” said Tyukody. “Put our money into helping people than trying to lock them up.”

The prison industrial complex has created a cycle of punishment that only further impoverishes those whose impoverishment is supposedly solved by the prison system, said Davis.

The Welfare System:

The lines between the welfare system and the criminal justice system were blurred when welfare reform federal legislation capped the amount of benefits for families in some states, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, author of “To Punish the Poor: Criminalizing Trends in the Welfare System”.

Welfare reform created a family cap that denied a monetary increase to women who give birth, despite the increased size and costs of the family. Gustafson said that more people of color on the welfare roll increased the likelihood of a state implementing this family cap.

The family cap implies that people of color are such a threat to society that the state needs to take action, said Gustafson. It creates a stereotype that people of color are criminals and criminals breed criminals. The cap on welfare is intended, she contends, to in essence, reduce the number of children in poor families.

Rios said in an interview, “So now it’s not like the… school-to-prison pipeline, but like the preschool-to-prison pipeline is really from womb to the jail cell.”

In a TEDx UCSB talk, Rios said that society needs to stop labeling adolescent youths in communities of color as at-risk and transition into calling them at-promise. He said that the way society treats them is the way they see themselves, and to treat them positively will yield more positive results.


State policy is currently shifting from social programs and welfare to social control and punishment. Many advocates for prison reform believe that this nation needs to move the other way, away from criminalization and towards social improvement.

Rios noticed that in Oakland, the community he was studying, many adult males would be released and had high hopes for changing themselves for the better. However, the lack of opportunity led them to go right back to committing crime to survive.

The media is a huge part of being able to change the views of society, said Rios. Once people of color are portrayed more as doing positive things for their communities than as criminals, we can progress.

The rioters in the media in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson are portrayed as criminals, said Rios. This delegitimizes the social issue that they are fighting for.

Rios said he believes that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is just the beginning. He said he hopes that by highlighting this, it will automatically highlight all communities of color. “You know what? Our time is coming,” he said. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

Tyukody argues: “We take those that we don’t know what to do with in society, the impoverished, the mentally ill, anything like that and just shove them in prison so we don’t have to deal with it.” Just like a magic trick, society makes them disappear.

    Roya Salehi

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