The most fundamental issue that relates prisons to politics in the United States is mass incarceration. The sheer number of people held in various detention facilities is generally considered disproportionately high in regard to the overall population when the United States is compared with other democratic nations. Closely related is the issue of sentencing equality. While progress has been made to reduce inequality in sentencing for similar crimes, some legislators are reluctant to support reform because they fear being labeled “soft on crime.” The disparities in sentencing are particularly a racial justice issue within the larger scope of criminal justice concerns because people of color are usually given longer sentences.
Another issue is lack of representation that prisoners face as a consequence of incarceration. Many consider that prisoners’ loss of voting rights creates a situation of “taxation without representation” after they are released, as they are unable to vote for legislators who can affect their future in areas such as employment or benefits.
A substantial number of detainees are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. These numbers are increasing in the border states, especially in the South, because of the high number of migrants detained after entering the country without proper documents. The absence of a unified federal policy regarding the detention of migrants—especially families with minor children—has created a crisis in incarceration that includes due process and the right to a speedy trial.