The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Op Ed: Nation of the free, or nation of the incarcerated?

3 min read

Lauren Brumfield | The Blue & Gray Press


Ava DeVernay, the notable director of the 2014 Oscar nominated film Selma, and most recently the 2016 Netflix’s documentary 13th has started a conversation. This Oscar nominated documentary titled 13th, looks at the history of incarceration, and being black in America. What DeVernay is able to do is highlight the changing definition of crime in America. As former President Barack Obama stated, “The Fact is that the US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the people in the world who are incarcerated.” As the film demonstrates looking back in history is important, and vital to who we are as a democracy, and society. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, was able to recharge the Klan in America, proclaiming the African American man as a criminal, an animal who could not be trusted with white American girls. President Woodrow Wilson even held a private White House screening of the film. The changes in how African Americans were viewed in America changed with this film, and dramatically affected public policy in America. The Nixon Administration, with the assistance of FBI director J Edgar Hoover in the 1970’s started this inherent battle, a fight for the freedom of our streets, from these drug and crime ridden people. Once Nixon started the war on crime, Ronald Reagan’s administration, and first lady Nancy Reagan started the just say no campaign, a war on drugs, made the drug issue a larger issue than it was, and made the problem worse if everything. Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill is one of the main factors leading to where we are today, building millions of prison, and dramatically militarizing out police forces on our streets.  An entire generation grew up watching Saturday night prime time television, of black’s being arrested in shows like Cops


It is interesting that we are the nation of the free, yet also the nation of the jailed. The famed three strikes you’re out policy during the Clinton years showcases this beautifully. There is a system of millions of people who are in jail, simply due to the fact they can’t pay bail. These are petty crimes in most cases. We need to revamp our system, and understand that our prisons do not need to be filled to the brim, it does not need to be a for profit system. Decades later, studies have shown that private prisons are no more efficient and are often more abusive than those run by the federal or state governments. The federal Bureau of Prisons announced in 2016 its intention to stop contracting with private providers for prison services. The over-incarceration of adults has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children. That place on applications highlighting felonies is a dead-end for millions of Americans. We live in a system where we do not help our incarcerated, and we ridicule them once they get out. We need answers, officials and citizens who understand this problem, and the many others we have. Ava DeVernay started this discussion, and just like other documentaries like Food Inc did in 2008 for the food industry and Monsanto, we need dramatic overhaul, but a slow processed discussion.

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