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Incarceration in the United States


Incarceration in the United States

Total incarceration in the United States by year
A graph showing the incarceration rate under state and federal jurisdiction per 100,000 population 1925–2012. Does not include prisoners held in the custody of local jails, inmates out to court, and those in transit.[1] The male incarceration rate is roughly 15 times the female incarceration rate.
Inmates held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails, December 31, 2000, and 2009–2010.[2]

Incarceration in the United States of America is one of the main forms of punishment, rehabilitation, or both for the commission of felony and other offenses. The United States has the largest prison population in the world,[3][4] and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate, behind Seychelles (which has a total prison population of 786 out of a population of 90,024).[5][6] In 2012, it was 707 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population.[7][8][9][10][11]

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,266,800 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2011 – about 0.94% of adults in the U.S. resident population.[8] Additionally, 4,814,200 adults at year-end 2011 were on probation or on parole.[12] In total, 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2011 – about 2.9% of adults in the U.S. resident population.[12]

In addition, there were 70,792 juveniles in juvenile detention in 2010.[13]

Although debtor's prisons no longer exist in the United States, residents of some U.S. states can still be incarcerated for debt as of 2014.[14][15][16]

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, "tough-on-crime" laws adopted since the 1980s have filled U.S. prisons with mostly nonviolent offenders.[17] This policy failed to rehabilitate prisoners and many were worse on release than before incarceration. Rehabilitation programs for offenders can be more cost effective than prison. [18]


  • History 1
  • Prison population 2
    • Duration 2.1
    • Violent and nonviolent crime 2.2
    • Recidivism 2.3
    • Comparison with other countries 2.4
    • Race 2.5
    • Women 2.6
    • Youth 2.7
    • Aged 2.8
  • Operational 3
    • Security levels 3.1
    • Correspondence 3.2
    • Conditions 3.3
    • Privatization 3.4
    • Employment 3.5
    • Cost 3.6
  • Effects of incarceration 4
    • Proposed solutions 4.1
  • Criticism 5
    • Department of Justice Smart on Crime Program 5.1
    • Strip searches and cavity searches 5.2
  • Federal prisons 6
  • States and insular areas 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • External links 10


In 1841, Dorothea Dix discovered that prison conditions were, in her opinion, inhumane. Prisoners were chained naked, whipped with rods. Others, criminally insane, were caged, or placed in cellars, or closets. She insisted on changes throughout the rest of her life. While focusing on the insane, her comments also resulted in changes for other inmates.[19]

Prison population

On January 1, 2008 more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States were in prison or jail.[20][21]

USA and territories.[22]
Incarcerated population.
Adult and juvenile inmates.
Number of
in 2008
Total 2,418,352
Federal and state prisons 1,518,559
Territorial prisons 13,576
Local jails 785,556
ICE facilities 9,957
Military facilities 1,651
Jails in tribal territories 2,135
Juvenile facilities (2007)[13] 86,927

In 2008 approximately one in every 31 adults (7.3 million) in the United States was behind bars, or being monitored (probation and parole). In 2008 the breakdown for adults under correctional control was as follows: one out of 18 men, one in 89 women, one in 11 African-Americans (9.2 percent), one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent), and one in 45 Caucasians (2.2 percent). Crime rates have decreased by about 25 percent from 1988 to 2008.[23] In recent decades the U.S. has experienced a surge in its prison population, quadrupling since 1980, partially as a result of mandatory sentencing that came about during the "War on Drugs." Violent crime and property crime have declined since the early 1990s.[24]

In addition, there were 86,927 held in juvenile facilities as of the 2007 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP), conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.[13][22]

America's foster youth represent a large number of the incarcerated. In California, 70% of prisoners spent time in foster care system.

As of 2009, the three states with the lowest ratios of imprisoned people per 100,000 population are Maine (150 per 100,000), Minnesota (189 per 100,000), and New Hampshire (206 per 100,000). The three states with the highest ratio are Louisiana (881 per 100,000), Mississippi (702 per 100,000) and Oklahoma (657 per 100,000).[25]

In 2009, 92.9% of prisoners (not jail inmates) were male.[25]

A 2005 report estimated that 27% of federal prison inmates are noncitizens, convicted of crimes while in the country legally or illegally.[26] However, federal prison inmates account for six percent of the total incarcerated population; noncitizen populations in state and local prisons are more difficult to establish. The World Prison Brief puts the total number of foreign prisoners in all federal, state and local facilities at 5.9%.[10]


Many legislatures continually have reduced discretion of judges in both the sentencing process and the determination of when the conditions of a sentence have been satisfied. Determinate sentencing, use of mandatory minimums, and guidelines-based sentencing continue to remove the human element from sentencing, such as the prerogative of the judge to consider the mitigating or extenuating circumstances of a crime to determine the appropriate length of the incarceration. As the consequence of "three strikes laws," the increase in the duration of incarceration in the last decade was most pronounced in the case of life prison sentences, which increased by 83% between 1992 and 2003 while violent crimes fell in the same period.[27]

Violent and nonviolent crime

In 2008, there were 198.2 violent crimes reported per 100,000 persons.[28]

In 2008, there were over 14 million people arrested for violent and non-violent crime.[28]

7.9% of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons on September 30, 2009 were in for violent crimes.[25] 52.4% of sentenced prisoners in state prisons at year end 2008 were in for violent crimes.[25] 21.6% of convicted inmates in jails in 2002 (latest available data by type of offense) were in for violent crimes. Among unconvicted inmates in jails in 2002, 34% had a violent offense as the most serious charge. 41% percent of convicted and unconvicted jail inmates in 2002 had a current or prior violent offense; 46% were nonviolent recidivists. [29]

From 2000 to 2008, the state prison population increased by 159,200 prisoners, and violent offenders accounted for 60% of this increase. The number of drug offenders in state prisons declined by 12,400 over this period. Furthermore, while the number of sentenced violent offenders in state prison increased from 2000 through 2008, the expected length of stays for these offenders declined slightly during this period.[25]

Violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. Violent crime rates had been relatively constant or declining over those decades. The prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and lengthening time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes" laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release. 49 percent of sentenced state inmates were held for violent offenses. Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national "War on Drugs." The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges. [30][31] In 2011, 55.6% of the 1,131,210 sentenced prisoners in state prisons were being held for violent crimes (this number excludes the 200,966 prisoners being held due parole violations, of which 39.6% were re-incarcerated for a subsequent violent crime).[32] Also in 2011, 3.7% of the state prison population consisted of prisoners whose highest conviction was for drug possession (again excluding those incarcerated for parole violations of which 6.0% were re-incarcerated for a subsequent act of drug possession).[32]


A 2002 study survey showed that among nearly 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years, and 51.8% were back in prison.[33] However, the study found no evidence that spending more time in prison raises the recidivism rate, and found that those serving the longest time, 61 months or more, had a slightly lower re-arrest rate (54.2%) than every other category of prisoners. This is most likely explained by the older average age of those released with the longest sentences, and the study shows a strong negative correlation between recidivism and age upon release.

Comparison with other countries

The stats source is the World Prison Population List. 8th edition. Prisoners per 100,000 population.[9][34][35]

The United States has the highest prison population (2,228,424) and the second highest documented incarceration rate in the world (707 per 100,000 population), Seychelles has the highest rate (868 per 100,000).[9] As of year-end 2012 the USA rate was 920 adults incarcerated in prisons and jails per 100,000 population.[36][9] At year-end 2007 the United States had less than 5% of the world's population[37] and 23.4% of the world's prison and jail population (adult inmates).[10]

By comparison the incarceration rate in England and Wales in October 2011 was 155 people imprisoned per 100,000 residents;[38] the rate for Norway in May 2010 was 71 inmates per 100,000;[39] Netherlands in April 2010 was 94 per 100,000;[40] Australia in June 2010 was 133 per 100,000;[41] and New Zealand in October 2010 was 203 per 100,000.[42]

A 2008 New York Times article[43] said that "it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher."

In 2007, the United States topped the list of countries by incarceration rate


On June 30, 2006, an estimated 4.8% of black non-Hispanic men were in prison or jail, compared to 1.9% of Hispanic men of any race and 0.7% of white non-Hispanic men. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.[44]
Midyear 2010 incarceration rates by race and gender per 100,000 US residents of all ages (adult rates would be higher).[45]
Ethnicity Male Female Total
White non-Hispanic 678 91 -
Black non-Hispanic 4,347 260 -
Hispanic of any race 1,775 133 -
All inmates 1,352 126 732

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) non-Hispanic blacks accounted for 39.4% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 (841,000 black males and 64,800 black females out of a total of 2,096,300 males and 201,200 females).[46] According to the 2010 census of the US Census Bureau blacks (including Hispanic blacks) comprised 13.6% of the US population.[47][48][49] Of ethnic groups, native Black Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and American Indians have, some of the highest rates incarceration.[50][51][52][53][54][55][56][57][58] Though, of these groups, the black population is the largest, and therefore make up a large portion of those incarcerated in US prisons and jails. [59]

Hispanics (of all races) were 20.6% of the total jail and prison population in 2009.[46] Hispanics comprised 16.3% of the US population according to the 2010 US census.[47][60] The Northeast has the highest incarceration rates of Hispanics in the nation.[61] Connecticut has the highest Hispanic-to-White incarceration ratio with 6.6 Hispanic males for every white male. The National Average Hispanic-to-White incarceration ratio is 1.8. Other states with high Hispanic-to-White incarcerations include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.[62]

As the Hispanic community is not monolithic, variations are seen in incarceration rates. Among the Hispanic community, Puerto Ricans have the highest incarceration rate. Located primarily in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, they are up to six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, which may explain the higher incarceration rates for Hispanics overall in the Northeast region.[63][64][65][66][67][68][69][70][71] Illegal immigrants, usually Mexican nationals, also make up a substantial number of Hispanics incarcerated.[72][73][74]

In 2010 black non-Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender. White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents.[45][75] (For female rates see the table below.) Asian Americans, however, have lower incarceration rates than any other racial group, including whites.[76]

Black majority cities have similar crime statistics for blacks as do cities where majority of population is white. For example, white-majority San Diego has a slightly lower crime rate for blacks than does Atlanta, a city which has black majority in population and city government.[77]

In 2013, by age 18, 30% of black males, 26% of Hispanic males, and 22% of white males have been arrested. By age 23, 49% of black males, 44% of Hispanic males, and 38% of white males have been arrested.[78]


As of December 31, 2009 the female prison population of federal and state prisons in the United States was 113,462.[79] Within the US, the rate of female incarceration increased fivefold in a two decade span ending in 2001; the increase occurred because of increased prosecutions and convictions of offenses related to recreational drugs, increases in the severities of offenses, and a lack of community sanctions and treatment for women who violate laws.[80] In the United States, authorities began housing women in correctional facilities separate from men in the 1870s.[81]


Census of juveniles in residential placement, 1997–2011.[13][22]
Count Male Female Total
1997 90,771 14,284 105,055
1999 92,985 14,508 107,493
2001 89,115 15,104 104,219
2003 81,975 14,556 96,531
2006 78,998 13,723 92,721
2007 75,017 11,797 86,814
2010 61,358 9,434 70,792
2011 53,079 8,344 61,423

Through the juvenile courts and the adult criminal justice system, the United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world, a reflection of the larger trends in incarceration practices in the United States. This has been a source of controversy for a number of reasons, including the overcrowding and violence in youth detention facilities, the prosecution of youths as adults and the long term consequences of incarceration on the individual's chances for success in adulthood. In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the United States for about ten judicial abuses, including the mistreatment of juvenile inmates.[82]

According to federal data from 2011, around 40% of the nation’s juvenile inmates are housed in private facilities.[83]


The percentage of prisoners in federal and state prisons aged 55 and older increased by 33% from 2000 to 2005 while the prison population grew by 8%. The Southern Legislative Conference found that in 16 southern states the elderly prisoner population increased on average by 145% between 1997 and 2007. The growth in the elderly population brought along higher health care costs, most notably seen in the 10% average increase in state prison budgets from 2005 to 2006.

The SLC expects the percentage of elderly prisoners relative to the overall prison population to continue to rise. Ronald Aday, a professor of aging studies at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections, concurs. One out of six prisoners in California is serving a life sentence. Aday predicts that by 2020 16% percent of those serving life sentences will be elderly.[84][85]

State governments pay all of their inmates' housing costs which significantly increase as prisoners age. Inmates are unable to apply for Medicare and Medicaid. Most Departments of Correction report spending more than 10 percent of the annual budget on elderly care.[84][85]

The American Civil Liberties Union published a report in 2012 which asserts that the elderly prison population has climbed 1300% since the 1980s, with 125,000 inmates aged 55 or older now incarcerated.[86]


U.S. federal prisoner distribution since 1950

Security levels

In various, but not all, states' department of corrections, inmates reside in different facilities that vary by security level, especially in security measures, administration of inmates, type of housing, and weapons and tactics used by corrections officers. The federal government's Bureau of Prisons uses a numbered scale from one to five to represent the security level. Level five is the most secure, while level one is the least. State prison systems operate similar systems. California, for example, classifies its facilities from Reception Center through Levels I to V (minimum to maximum security) to specialized high security units (all considered Level V) including Security Housing Unit (SHU)—California's version of supermax—and related units. As a general rule, county jails, detention centers, and reception centers, where new commitments are first held while either awaiting trial or before being transferred to "mainline" institutions to serve out their sentences, operate at a relatively high level of security, usually close security or higher.

Supermax prison facilities provide the highest level of prison security. These units hold those considered the most dangerous inmates, as well as inmates that have been deemed too high-profile or too great a national security risk for a normal prison. These include inmates who have committed assaults, murders, or other serious violations in less secure facilities, and inmates known to be or accused of being prison gang members.[87] Most states have either a supermax section of a prison facility or an entire prison facility designated as a supermax. The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons operates a federal supermax, ADX Florence, located in Florence, Colorado, also known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" and widely considered to be perhaps the most secure prison in the United States.[87] ADX Florence has a standard supermax section where assaultive, violent, and gang-related inmates are kept under normal supermax conditions of 23-hour confinement and abridged amenities. ADX Florence is considered to be of a security level above that of all other prisons in the United States, at least in the "ideological" ultramax part of it, which features permanent, 24-hour solitary confinement with rare human contacts or opportunity to earn better conditions through good behavior.[87]

In a maximum security prison or area, all prisoners have individual cells with sliding doors controlled from a secure remote control station.[87] Prisoners are allowed out of their cells one out of twenty four hours (one hour and 30 minutes for prisoners in California). When out of their cells, prisoners remain in the cell block or an exterior cage. Movement out of the cell block or "pod" is tightly restricted using restraints and escorts by correctional officers.[87]

Under close security, prisoners usually have one- or two-person cells operated from a remote control station. Each cell has its own toilet and sink.[87] Inmates may leave their cells for work assignments or correctional programs and otherwise may be allowed in a common area in the cellblock or an exercise yard. The fences are generally double fences with watchtowers housing armed guards, plus often a third, lethal-current electric fence in the middle.[87]

Prisoners that fall into the medium security group may sleep in dormitories on bunk beds with lockers to store their possessions.[87] They may have communal showers, toilets and sinks. Dormitories are locked at night with one or more correctional officers supervising. There is less supervision over the internal movements of prisoners. The perimeter is generally double fenced and regularly patrolled.[87]

Prisoners in minimum security facilities are considered to pose little physical risk to the public and are mainly non-violent "white collar criminals". Minimum security prisoners live in less-secure dormitories, which are regularly patrolled by correctional officers.[87] As in medium security facilities, they have communal showers, toilets, and sinks. A minimum-security facility generally has a single fence that is watched, but not patrolled, by armed guards. At facilities in very remote and rural areas, there may be no fence at all. Prisoners may often work on community projects, such as roadside litter cleanup with the state department of transportation or wilderness conservation. Many minimum security facilities are small camps located in or near military bases, larger prisons (outside the security perimeter) or other government institutions to provide a convenient supply of convict labor to the institution. Many states allow persons in minimum-security facilities access to the Internet.[87]


Research indicates that inmates who maintain contact with family and friends in the outside world are less likely to be convicted of further crimes and usually have an easier reintegration period back into society. Many institutions encourage friends and families to send letters, especially when they are unable to visit regularly. However, guidelines exist as to what constitutes acceptable mail, and these policies are strictly enforced.

Mail sent to inmates in violation of prison policies can cost inmates "gain time" and even lead to punishment. Most Department of Corrections websites provide detailed information regarding mail policies. These rules can even vary within a single prison depending on which part of the prison an inmate is housed. For example, death row and maximum security inmates are usually under stricter mail guidelines for security reasons.

There have been several notable challenges to prison corresponding services. The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) stated that effective June 1, 2007, inmates would be prohibited from using pen pal websites, citing concerns that inmates were using them to solicit money and defraud the public.[88] Service providers such as, together with the ACLU, plan to challenge the ban in Federal Court. Similar bans on an inmate's rights or a website's right to post such information has been ruled unconstitutional in other courts, citing First Amendment freedoms.[89] Some faith-based initiatives promote the positive effects of correspondence on inmates, and some have made efforts to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society through job placement assistance.[90] Inmates' ability to mail letters to other inmates has been limited by the courts.[91] Inmate correspondence with members of society is typically encouraged because of the positive impact it can have on inmates, albeit under the guidelines of each institution and availability of letter writers.


Living facilities in California State Prison (July 19, 2006)[92]

The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch raised concerns with prisoner rape and medical care for inmates.[93] In a survey of 1,788 male inmates in Midwestern prisons by Prison Journal, about 21% responded they had been coerced or pressured into sexual activity during their incarceration, and 7% that they had been raped in their current facility.[94]

In August 2003, a Harper's article by Wil S. Hylton estimated that "somewhere between 20 and 40% of American prisoners are, at this very moment, infected with hepatitis C".[95] Prisons may outsource medical care to private companies such as Correctional Medical Services (now Corizon) that, according to Hylton's research, try to minimize the amount of care given to prisoners in order to maximize profits.[95][96] After the privatization of healthcare in Arizona's prisons, medical spending fell by 30 million dollars and staffing was greatly reduced. Some 50 prisoners died in custody in the first 8 months of 2013, compared to 37 for the preceding two years combined.[97]

The poor quality of food provided to inmates has become an issue, as over the last decade corrections officials looking to cut costs have been outsourcing food services to private, for profit corporations such as Aramark, A’Viands Food & Services Management, and ABL Management.[98] A prison riot in Kentucky has been blamed on the low quality of food Aramark provided to inmates.[99]

Also identified as an issue within the prison system is gang violence, because many gang members retain their gang identity and affiliations when imprisoned. Segregation of identified gang members from the general population of inmates, with different gangs being housed in separate units often results in the imprisonment of these gang members with their friends and criminal cohorts. Some feel this has the effect of turning prisons into "institutions of higher criminal learning."[100]

Many prisons in the United States are overcrowded. For example, California's 33 prisons have a total capacity of 100,000, but they hold 170,000 inmates.[101] Many prisons in California and around the country are forced to turn old gymnasiums and classrooms into huge bunkhouses for inmates. They do this by placing hundreds of bunk beds next to one another, in these gyms, without any type of barriers to keep inmates separated. In California, the inadequate security engendered by this situation, coupled with insufficient staffing levels, have led to increased violence and a prison health system that causes one death a week. This situation has led the courts to order California to release 27% of the current prison population, citing the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.[102] The three-judge court considering requests by the Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger courts found California's prisons have become criminogenic as a result of prison overcrowding.[103]

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Cutter v. Wilkinson established that prisons that received federal funds could not deny prisoners accommodations necessary for religious practices.

According to a Supreme Court ruling issued on May 23, 2011, California — which has the highest overcrowding rate of any prison system in the country — must alleviate overcrowding in the state's prisons, reducing the prisoner population by 30,000 over the next two years.[104][105]

Inmates in a Orleans Parish Prison yard

Solitary confinement is widely used in US prisons, yet it is underreported by most states, while some don't report it at all. Isolation of prisoners has been condemned by the UN in 2011 as a form of torture. At over 80,000 at any given time, the US has more prisoners confined in isolation than any other country in the world. In Louisiana, with 843 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, there have been prisoners, such as the Angola Three, held for as long as forty years in isolation.[106][107]

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Norway refused to extradite American hashish-smuggler Henry Hendricksen, as they declared that US prisons do not meet their minimum humanitarian standards.[108]

In 2011, some 885 people died while being held in local jails (not in prisons after being convicted of a crime and sentenced) throughout the United States.[109]

As of September 2013, condoms for prisoners are only available in the US state of Vermont (on September 17, 2013, the California Senate approved a bill for condom distribution inside the state's prisons, but the bill was not yet law at the time of approval).[110]


Prior to the 1980s, private prisons did not exist in the US. In the 1980s, as a result of the War on Drugs by the Reagan Administration, the number of people incarcerated rose. This created a demand for more prison space. The result was the development of privatization and the for-profit prison industry.[111]

In recent years, there has been debate over the privatization of prisons. Both publicly provided and publicly financed prisons operate under the supervision of the various Departments of Corrections that exist at the state and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

A study was performed using three comparable Louisiana medium security prisons, two of which were privately run by different corporations and the third was publicly run. The data from this study suggests the privately run prisons operated more cost-effectively without sacrificing the safety of inmates and staff. The study concluded that the privately run prisons had a lower cost per inmate, fewer critical incidents, a safer environment for employees and inmates, and a higher proportional rate of inmates who complete basic education, literacy, and vocational training courses. However, the publicly run prison outperformed the privately run prisons in areas such as fewer escape attempts, controlling substance abuse through testing, offered a wider range of educational and vocational courses, and provided a broader range of treatment, recreation, social services, and rehabilitative services.[112]

The results of this study show why this issue is complicated, without an obvious solution. The privately run prisons were found to be a cheaper alternative without diminishing the level of safety and generating a higher completion rate of the offered educational/vocational programs. But the publicly run prison offered more services, suggesting a larger commitment beyond guarding and housing inmates.

In Mississippi, a 2013 Bloomberg report states that assault rates in private facilities were three times higher on average than in their public counterparts. In 2012, the for-profit Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility was the most violent prison in the state, and had 27 assaults per 100 offenders.[113] A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of prisoners at the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility in 2013 claims the conditions there are "hyper-violent," "barbaric" and "chaotic," with gangs routinely beating and exploiting mentally-ill inmates who are denied medical care by prison staff.[114][115] A May 2012 riot in the Corrections Corporation of America-run Adams County Correctional Facility, also in Mississippi, left one corrections officer dead and dozens injured. Similar riots have occurred in privatized facilities in Idaho, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, and California.[116][117] The Bloomberg report also notes that in the past decade the number of inmates in for-profit prisons throughout the U.S. rose 44 percent.[113]

According to the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013, numerous other studies indicate that private jails are actually filthier, more violent, less accountable, and possibly more costly than their public counterparts. The ACLU stated that the for-profit prison industry is "a major contributor to bloated state budgets and mass incarceration – not a part of any viable solution to these urgent problems."[118] In fact, the primary reason Louisiana is the prison capital of the world is because of the for-profit prison industry. According to The Times-Picayune, "a majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt."[119]

Controversy has surrounded the privatization of prisons with the exposure of the genesis of the landmark Arizona SB 1070 law. This law was written by Arizona State Congressman Russell Pearce and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.[120][121] Both CCA and GEO Group, the two largest operators of private facilities, have been contributors to ALEC, which lobbies for policies that would increase incarceration, such as three-strike laws and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation.[122][123][124][125][126]

In addition to CCA and GEO Group, companies operating in the private prison business include Management and Training Corporation, and Community Education Centers. The GEO Group was formerly known as the Wackenhut Corrections division. It includes the former Correctional Services Corporation and Cornell Companies, which were purchased by GEO in 2005 and 2010. Such companies often sign contracts with states obliging them to fill prison beds or reimburse them for those that go unused.[127]

Private companies which provide services to prisons combine in the 501(c)3 which advocates legislation favorable to the industry. Such private companies comprise what has been termed the prison–industrial complex.[128][129] An example of this phenomenon would be the Kids for cash scandal, in which two judges in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, were receiving judicial kickbacks for sending youths, convicted of minor crimes,[130] to a privatized, for-profit juvenile facility run by the Mid Atlantic Youth Service Corporation.[124]

The industry is aware of what reduced crime rates could mean to their bottom line. This from the CCA's SEC report in 2010:

"Our growth … depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates …[R]eductions in crime rates … could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities."[118]


About 18% of eligible prisoners held in federal prisons are employed by UNICOR and are paid less than $1.25 an hour.[131][132][133]

It is estimated that 1 in 9 state government employees works in corrections.[134] As the overall U.S. prison population declined in 2010, states are closing prisons. For instance, Virginia has removed 11 prisons since 2009. Like other small towns, Boydton in Virginia has to contend with unemployment woes resulting from the closure of the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.[135]


U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Not adjusted for inflation. To view the inflation-adjusted data:[136]

In 2007, around $74 billion was spent on corrections.[136] The total number of inmates in 2007 in federal, state, and local lockups was 2,419,241.[22] That comes to around $30,600 per inmate. Church Publishing (CP) estimates the 50 states plus federal government expenditure amounts to $56.9 billion spent on U.S. corrections. The CPs' additional $7.5 billion estimate excludes 'double-counting' state or federal subsidies for local lock-ups which vary to reach $64.4 billion spent on U.S. corrections annually by 2014.[137]

In 2005, it cost an average of $23,876 dollars per state prisoner. State prison spending varied widely, from $45,000 a year in Rhode Island to $13,000 in Louisiana.[20][134]

In California in 2008, it cost the state an average of $47,102 a year to incarcerate an inmate in a state prison. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual cost increased by about $19,500.[138]

In 2003 among facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it cost $25,327 per inmate.[139]

Housing the approximately 500,000 people in jail in the USA awaiting trial who cannot afford bail costs $9 billion a year.[140] Most jail inmates are petty, nonviolent offenders. Twenty years ago most nonviolent defendants were released on their own recognizance (trusted to show up at trial). Now most are given bail, and most pay a bail bondsman to afford it.[141] 62% of local jail inmates are awaiting trial.[142]

To ease jail overcrowding over 10 counties every year consider building new jails. As an example Lubbock County, Texas has decided to build a $110 million megajail to ease jail overcrowding. Jail costs an average of $60 a day nationally.[141][143] In Broward County, Florida supervised pretrial release costs about $7 a day per person while jail costs $115 a day. The jail system costs a quarter of every county tax dollar in Broward County, and is the single largest expense to the county taxpayer.[144]

Bondsmen have lobbied to cut back local pretrial programs from Texas to California, pushed for legislation in four states limiting pretrial's resources, and lobbied Congress so that they won't have to pay the bond if the defendant commits a new crime. Behind them, the bondsmen have powerful special interest group and millions of dollars. Pretrial release agencies have a smattering of public employees and the remnants of their once-thriving programs.
National Public Radio, January 22, 2010.[144]

The National Association of State Budget Officers reports: "In fiscal 2009, corrections spending represented 3.4 percent of total state spending and 7.2 percent of general fund spending." They also report: "Some states exclude certain items when reporting corrections expenditures. Twenty-one states wholly or partially excluded juvenile delinquency counseling from their corrections figures and fifteen states wholly or partially excluded spending on juvenile institutions. Seventeen states wholly or partially excluded spending on drug abuse rehabilitation centers and forty-one states wholly or partially excluded spending on institutions for the criminally insane. Twenty-two states wholly or partially excluded aid to local governments for jails. For details, see Table 36."[145]

As of 2007 the cost of medical care for inmates was growing by 10 percent annually.[20][134]

Effects of incarceration

Property crime rates in the United States per 100,000 population beginning in 1960. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Violent crime rates by gender 1973-2003.[146]
Within three years of being released, 67% of ex-prisoners re-offend and 52% are re-incarcerated, according to a study published in 1994.[147] The rate of recidivism is so high in the United States that most inmates who enter the system are likely to reenter within a year of their release. Former inmate Wenona Thompson argues "I realized that I became part of a cycle, a system, that looked forward to seeing me there. And I was aware that...I would be one of those people who fill up their prisons".[148]

In 1995 the government allocated $5.1 billion for new prison space. Every $100 million spent in construction costs $53 million per year in finance and operational costs over the next three decades.[149] Taxpayers spend $60 billion a year for prisons. In 2005, it cost an average of $23,876 a year to house a prisoner.[150] It takes about $30,000 per year per person to provide drug rehabilitation treatment to inmates. By contrast, the cost of drug rehabilitation treatment outside of a prison costs about $8,000 per year per person.[151]

American journalist Reihan Salam has argued in National Review Online that past a certain point in which more of the population have been or are currently in prison, incarceration becomes more destigmatized and crime would actually increase (akin to the Laffer curve). He argues that the U.S. "appear[s] to be past that point" with its incarceration rate.[152]

The effects of such high incarceration rates are also shown in other ways. For example, a woman who has been recently released from prison is ineligible for welfare in most states. She is not eligible for subsidized housing, and for Section 8 she has to wait two years before she can apply. In addition to finding housing, she also has to find employment, but most likely she can not find a job because she has a criminal record so no one wants to hire her. Essentially, a woman who has been recently released from prison comes into a society that is not prepared structurally or emotionally to welcome her back.[151]

Marc Mauer, assistant director of the non-profit group Sentencing Project, has remarked that "[...] what we don't see are the ripple effects of what they mean: For the generation of black children today, there's almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison".[153] For every mother that is incarcerated in the United States there are about another ten people (children, grandparents, community, etc.) that are directly affected.[154]

In The New Jim Crow in 2010, legal scholar and advocate Michelle Alexander contended that the U.S. incarceration system worked to bar black men from voting. She wrote "there are more African Americans under correctional control -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began".[155] Alexander's work has drawn increased attention through 2011 and into 2013.

Yale Law Professor, and opponent of mass incarceration James Forman Jr. has countered that 1) African Americans, as represented by such cities as the District of Columbia, have generally supported tough on crime policies. 2) There appears to be a connection between drugs and violent crimes, the discussion of which, he says, New Jim Crow theorists have avoided. 3) New theorists have overlooked class as a factor in incarceration. Blacks with advanced degrees have fewer convictions. Blacks without advanced education have more.[156]

Proposed solutions

Mass incarceration cannot be remedied in a short length of time, because each prisoner serves a separate sentence, the average length of sentences has risen over the last 35 years and public support for prison reform is still relatively low. Decriminalizing drugs has been suggested by libertarians, but remains a remote political option. Additional parole and probation can be facilitated with enhanced electronic monitoring, though monitoring is expensive. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld prisoner releases to relieve California's unconstitutional prison conditions in Brown v. Plata, long-standing litigation wherein the federal courts intervened as they have done in most states through the years. Recently, an argument has been made to re-institute judicial corporal punishment in lieu of incarceration in order to cut the American prison and jail populations in half.[157]


High rates of incarceration may be due to sentence length, which is further driven by many other factors. Shorter sentences may even diminish the criminal culture by possibly reducing re-arrest rates for first-time convicts.[158] The U.S. Congress has ordered federal judges to make imprisonment decisions "recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation."[159]

Critics have lambasted the United States for incarcerating a large number of non-violent and victimless offenders;[161][162] half of all persons incarcerated under state jurisdiction are for non-violent offenses, and 20% are incarcerated for drug offenses (in state prisons, federal prison percentages are higher).[46][163] "Human Rights Watch believes the extraordinary rate of incarceration in the United States wreaks havoc on individuals, families and communities, and saps the strength of the nation as a whole."[161] The population of inmates housed in prisons and jails in the United States exceeds 2 million, with the per capita incarceration population higher than that officially reported by any other country.[134] Criminal justice policy in the United States has also been criticized for a number of other reasons.[164] Critics such as Angela Davis have argued that prisons in the U.S. have "become venues of profit as well as punishment;" as mass incarceration has increased, the prison system has become more about economic factors than criminality.[165] Sociologist Loïc Wacquant postulates in the neoliberal era, the expansive prison system has become a political institution designed to deal with an urban crisis created by welfare state retrenchment and economic deregulation, and that this "overgrown and intrusive penal state" is "deeply injurious to the ideals of democratic citizenship."[166] In the 2014 book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, journalist Matt Taibbi argues that the expanding disparity of wealth and the increasing criminalization of those in poverty have culminated in the U.S. having the largest prison population "in the history of human civilization."[167]

Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (August 3, 2008), Becky Pettit, associate professor of sociology from the University of Washington and Bryan Sykes, a UW post-doctoral researcher, revealed that the mammoth increase in the United States's prison population since the 1970s is having profound demographic consequences that affect 1 in 50 Americans. Drawing data from a variety of sources that looked at prison and general populations, the researchers found that the boom in prison population is hiding lowered rates of fertility and increased rates of involuntary migration to rural areas and morbidity that is marked by a greater exposure to and risk of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV or AIDS.[168]

Guilty plea bargains concluded 97% of all federal cases in 2011.[170]

As of December 2012, two state prison systems segregated prisoners based on their HIV status. On December 21, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ruled in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of several inmates that Alabama's practice in doing so violated federal disabilities law. He noted the state's "outdated and unsupported assumptions about HIV and the prison system's ability to deal with HIV-positive prisoners." The other state with a similar segregation policy was South Carolina.[171]

Department of Justice Smart on Crime Program

On 12 August 2013, at the American Bar Association's House of Delegates meeting, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the "Smart on Crime" program, which is "a sweeping initiative by the Justice Department that in effect renounces several decades of tough-on-crime anti-drug legislation and policies."[172][173] Holder said the program "will encourage U.S. attorneys to charge defendants only with crimes "for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins…"[172][173] Running through Holder's statements, the increasing economic burden of over-incarceration was stressed.[172][173] As of August 2013, the Smart on Crime program is not a legislative initiative but an effort "limited to the DOJ's policy parameters."[172][172][173]

Strip searches and cavity searches

The procedural use of strip searches and cavity searches in the prison system has raised human rights concerns.[174]

Federal prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice, is responsible for the administration of United States federal prisons.

States and insular areas

Imprisonment by the state judicial systems has steadily diminished since 2006 to 2012, from 689,536 annually to 553,843 annually.[175]

See also



Prison advocacy groups:


By state:


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