Colourised image of a Southern chain gang, four men

How the racial underpinnings of US penitentiary system still impact society today

Both the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ and the campaign on gang violence in the second half of the twentieth century were responsible for the mass imprisonment of African American men. However, the die had been cast a hundred years earlier, researchers from the Universities of Liverpool and Georgia have found.

The use of the criminal law to control former-slaves and their children had already dramatically propelled huge numbers of African Americans into prison, and that is still having an impact.

The University of Liverpool’s Barry Godfrey, Professor of Social Justice and University of Georgia colleague Dr Steve Soper have received funding from the United States National Endowment for the Humanities to examine the racial underpinnings of the US penitentiary system.

Examining data from last two centuries

The United States incarcerates nearly one percent of its population.  Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but this demographic makes up over a third of the prison population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).

To view this current disproportion through a historical lens, the two researchers have analysed the historical registers of Georgia’s penal system, which run from 1817 through to 1976.

Barry says: “In addition to the name of the prisoner, the offence, and details of the sentence, these records also contain biometric data such as hair and eye colour, height, birthplace, and place of conviction, and whether the prisoner was subsequently pardoned, or escaped.

“The digitised convict records show that there was a significant rise in the number of formerly enslaved people who were imprisoned following the end of the Civil War. Although it happened far earlier, the end of slavery also saw a rise in prison populations across the British Empire. Before the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1833, the West Indies had a prison population of approximately one thousand inmates, two years after the year after slavery was abolished it had risen eight-fold.  As in the British West Indies, the rise of prison numbers in the United States was also fuelled by a desire to find other ways of controlling and incapacitating freed slaves.”

Legacy resounds down the generations

Between 1817 and 1865, before the American Civil War, the records for ‘complexion’ that the researchers accessed reveal that a fifth of inmates were described as ‘black’, ‘dark’, or ‘copper’ and four-fifths were described as ‘white’, ‘fair’, or ‘light’.

“After the Civil War, the category of ‘race’ replaced ‘complexion’ in the records,” says Barry. “Even so, the range of descriptors in that category were impressionistic and casually derogatory – nine hundred people (5% of the sample) for example were described as being the colour of ‘ginger cake’.”

The drop in numbers of imprisoned emancipated slaves (and their children) was caused by the introduction of ‘convict leasing’ (an early form of prison labour where inmates were typically leased to operators of plantations, railroads, and coal mines). At the start of the 1900s, when prisoners were again kept within brick walls rather than being forced to labour in the fields, the figures rose inexorably.

Barry says: “Using the digitised data to cross-tabulate race and age, we can see that the huge upswing in prison numbers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century was caused by sweeping young black men through the prison gates. Because of stigma and reduced employment opportunities for former-prisoners, many re-offend, and, due to intergenerational inequalities, many of their own children end up in prison. The legacies of the huge and immediate imprisonment of formerly enslaved people after the Civil War resounds down the generations. Its effects are still felt today.”

Inequalities still exist today

In the United States, the vast majority of the prison population comprises the previously imprisoned, and parole-violators.  When prisoners are released (often on conditional licences or parole), they find it difficult to secure accommodation and employment, and they are vulnerable to police attention.

“Incarceration is intergenerational,” says Barry. “When parents are imprisoned, their families also suffer. Children who vicariously experience imprisonment are more likely to end up in prisons themselves. It is not automatic, but it is much harder to escape poverty traps, and to make a successful life. The African American prison population is therefore to some extent a self-perpetuating and continuing tragedy.

“Imprisoning black people became ‘normal’ from the mid nineteenth century and was seized upon as proof that African Americans committed the bulk of crime, creating the impetus for more race-based criminal justice policies and practices. The legacy of the use of imprisonment as a post-slavery tool of control is a continuing justification for tolerance of racist policing, in the mistaken belief that punishing black people equates to controlling criminality.”

It is important that the experiences of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the incarcerated do not remain hidden. Academics at the Universities of Liverpool and Georgia, together with archivists at Alabama Department of Archives and History are now working on a website which will deliver data about prisoners’ lives back to their descendants, to students, and to teachers to produce a living history.

Back to: Research