America Holds 25% Of The World’s Prisoners. Why?

Photo courtesy of Miss_Millions via Flickr.

In the United States, there are approximately 2.3 million prisoners in over 3,000 prisons. America has more people locked up than any other country: a whole quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite having only 5% of the world’s people.

Here are some facts about the prison business you might not have known.

The U.S. prison population has quadrupled in the last two decades.

Though there has been a slight decline in U.S. prison population since 2010, this decrease hardly makes up for the quintupling between 1980 and 2010, according to the NAACP, especially in comparison to an overall population growth of only 30%.

This relatively large population (greater than the entire population of Latvia, in total) is what makes the prison business thrive. This industry is known as the Prison Industrial Complex, or the PIC: one of the fastest growing in the United States, according to the Global Research center.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Prison Industrial Complex is a thriving multi-million dollar industry.

According to the ACLU, private prisons reap lucrative awards as prison populations grow and inmate labor increases, with investors benefiting greatly from mass incarceration even while (in the opinion of the ACLU) the public good suffers as a result.

In terms of cost, prisons cost taxpayers $39 billion, according to Vera researchers. To put it into perspective: per prisoner, a year in prison costs an average of $44,000: more than a year at Princeton would cost a student, the Atlantic reports. In NYC, that number is $168,000, according to the Independent Budget Office.

Most private prisons also insist on an occupancy guarantee from states is embedded in their contracts, according to a report by In the Public Interest, meaning that either their population quota is filled, or taxpayers make up the difference. The prison industry profits either way.

Mass incarceration is largely due to America’s persistent “war on drugs.”

With a dramatic spike in imprisonment due to non-violent crimes and longer sentences for possession of drugs, the PIC has everything to gain as more people are locked up, and remain in prison for a long duration. Strict drug laws and long sentences make this possible.

Sentences are even longer for drugs associated with lower classes. For example, crack cocaine, usually favored among minority groups (according to The Partnership for Safety and Justice), and cocaine powder, a drug favored among by the middle and upper class, had a sentencing disparity of 100 to 1 up until 2010. Now, the disparity is 18:1, according to the Fair Sentencing Act, which is still considerably disproportionate.

Is mass incarceration keeping people in poverty?

Despite making up only 13% of the nation, African Americans represented 38 percent of the population of state prisons in 2011, even with crimes very similar to their white and Latino counterparts. According to the American Prospect, this suggests that blacks, as well as Latinos, are more likely to be arrested for their crimes.

One out of nine African American men in their 20’s and 30’s are incarcerated, most without high school degrees. Many are calling it a poverty trap, especially for young African American men: Pew Research shows this demographic group is more likely to end up in prison than with a job without a high school diploma.

Population by race shows 60% of prisoners are ethnic minorities. In NYC, that number is higher: in 2012, only 7% of prisoners were white. Prisoners of all races tend to have one thing in common, though: poverty.

Author Paul Wright for Prison Legal News writes that despite the telling fact that no government statistics are kept on pre-incarceration earnings and employment histories, the criminal justice system is heavily influenced by money and class: the wealthy get better legal advisement and lighter punishments, if any, because they can afford it.

What are your thoughts on the prison industrial complex? Do you find any of these facts problematic? Tweet us @curiousmatic.

Jennifer Markert