An in-depth look at the U.S. Prison Industry

U.S. Prison System: Largest in the World

The U.S. prison system is the largest in the world, not only in terms of overall number of inmates, but as a percentage of the total population as well.  With over 2.3 million people behind bars, U.S. prisoners represent almost 25% of the world's total prison population (the U.S. population is 5% of the world).  The only country that comes close is Russia, with South Africa a distant third.

State by State

The relative distribution of the prison population in the U.S. is concentrated mostly in the southern states.  Louisiana, Alabama, and Oklahoma have the highest number of inmates per 100,000 residents:

Prison population by race

A large percentage of the prison population is African American. But Instead of simply looking at the total numbers of inmates by race, if you compare that number to their respective population in the U.S., you get a much clearer picture of the racial breakdown of the U.S. prison population.  In fact, what these numbers show is that 5% of black males who live in the United States are in prison or jail, 2% of Hispanic males, and less than 1% of white males.

More general statistics about the U.S. prison system:

Growth of U.S. Prisons

On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs".  What followed was a surge in spending on law enforcement and a host of new federal and state policies that included harsher penalties for drug related crimes.  Mandatory minimum sentences were established increasing jail terms even for first time offenders.  Prisons quickly became over-crowded and began rapidly expanding as to accommodate the surging convictions.

Not only did the prison and jail populations rise at a dramatic rate, but between 1980-2000, law enforcement continued to become increasingly efficient at putting criminals behind bars.  The imprisonment rate (or the number of convicted criminals [per 100,000 residents] sentenced to more than one year jail term) consistently rose until about 2001 when it finally began leveling off.  Male incarcerations also rose at a higher rate than female's.


The rapidly expanding corrections system meant rapidly expanding costs to tax payers.  From 1982 to 1996 the cost of the correction went from about $10 Billion to just under $70 Billion (an increase of 660%).  In comparison, the U.S. GDP rose only 203% in that time.

Despite a drastic and consistent level of growth in prisoners over the last 30 years, official state data collected by the Pew Center in 2010 suggests that the overall state inmate population declined for the first time since the 1972.

The privatization of prisons in the U.S.

Though prison privatization began in the 1980's with President's Regan and Bush Sr., it peaked when Bill Clinton was in office. Clinton's program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Departments contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.

Today, Private companies operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 inmates. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, which together combine for a capacity of 129,000 prisoners. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. 

Sometimes referred to the "prison industrial complex", with the rate of growth in the 80's and 90's, business was good.  Not only for prisons, but for suppliers of corrections facilities.  Nevertheless, the privatization of the prison industry helped fuel the growth of prisons as a matter of perpetuating growth of the industry.  Today, prison unions are some of the most powerful in the country

Though not exclusively in private facilities, prison labor also surged during this time.  Today, prison labor produces about $2.4 Billion in products per year.

Inmate mortality rates on the decline

Despite over-crowding, life in prison, it seems, has been getting much safer since the 1980's.  While a report done in 2000 showed that all causes of death were improving, the two most prominent were declining the fastest: homicides & suicides. 

Suicide rates in local jails was 3 times the rate of prisons in 1980, since then, they've both been on the decline and jail suicide rates are about 1/3 what they were 20 years earlier.  Homicides in prisons has also shown a sharp decrease going from 54 per 100,000 inmates in 1980 down to 4 less than 20 years later.

Recidivism: Prison as a method of rehabilitation

The question of whether prison is an effective method of rehabilitation is a widely debated one.  A study was performed by the U.S. DOJ to track the rearrest, re-conviction, and re-incarceration of former inmates for 3 years after their release from prisons in 15 states in 1994.  Here were the results of that study:

  • Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).
  • Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide. These are the lowest rates of re-arrest for the same category of crime.
  • The 272,111 offenders discharged in 1994 had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within 3 years of release.

Comparing the findings of this study to a similar study done in 1983 found that recidivism rates have increased.  67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years, an increase over the 62.5% found for those released in 1983.  Broken down by offense type:

  • From 68.1% to 73.8% for property offenders
  • From 50.4% to 66.7% for drug offenders
  • From 54.6% to 62.2% for public-order offenders
  • The rearrest rate for violent offenders remained relatively stable (59.6% in 1983 compared to 61.7% in 1994).

Crime on the decline

Crime has been in steady decline since 1990 particularly for property and violent crimes.  In fact, today, crime rates are at an all time low and still falling.  Below is a historical look at property crime rates over the past 50 years next to violent crimes over the same period.

While it would be disingenuous to attribute all of the decline in crime to the increased prison population (for example: Canada is showing the same declines in crime without the same inmate population increases) it wmight also be disingenuous to attribute none of it as well.  In fact, there's likely a number of reasons for the decline in crime including: increased police forces, success of entitlement programs, and even the decline of the crack epidemic in the late 90's.  Some wilder theories include legalization of abortions (that unwanted babies grow up to be criminals) and reduced lead poising (which causes aggressiveness) from paint and petrol as awareness of the dangers of lead increased in the late 70's. 

Norway: A contrasting approach

Regardless of the extent that the recent reduction of crime is due to the rapidly increasing size of the U.S. penal system, it's certainly not the only way to accomplish the goal of reduced crime.  For example, Norway has one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe (66 of 100,000) compared to the U.S. (738 of 100,000) and boasts incredibly low crime rates.  Norway also claims some of the shortest criminal sentences and yet still has a remarkably low recidivism rate (20%).  But does that mean that Norway's system will work for the U.S.?  It certainly makes for an interesting debate: