Incarceration in the United States

Incarceration in the United States

[ Probation and Parole in the United States, 2006] . By Lauren E. Glaze and Thomas P. Bonczar. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Department of Justice.] [ [ BJS. Correctional Population Trends Chart] .] ] Prisons in the United States are operated under strict authority of both the federal and state governments as incarceration is a concurrent power under the Constitution of the United States. Imprisonment is one of the main forms of punishment for the commission of felony offenses in the United States. Less serious offenders, including those convicted of misdemeanor offenses, may be sentenced to a short term in a local jail or with alternative forms of sanctions such as community corrections (halfway house), probation, and/or restitution. In the United States, prisons are operated at various levels of security, ranging from minimum-security prisons that mainly house non-violent offenders to Supermax facilities that house well-known criminals and terrorists such as Terry Nichols, Theodore Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Richard Reid.The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate, [ World Prison Population List. 7th edition] . By Roy Walmsley. Published in 2007. International Centre for Prison Studies. School of Law, King's College London. For editions 1 through 7: [] .] cite web|url=|title=New Incarceration Figures: Thirty-Three Consecutive Years of Growth|month=December | year=2006|accessdate=2007-06-10|publisher=Sentencing Project|format=PDF] and total documented prison population in the world. [ World Prison Brief - Highest to Lowest Figures] . International Centre for Prison Studies. School of Law, King's College London. Compare many nations. Select from menu: prison population total, prison population rate, percentage of pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners within the prison population, percentage of female prisoners within the prison population, percentage of foreign prisoners within the prison population and occupancy rate.] [cite web|author=Walmsley, Roy|url=|title=World Prison Population List|year=2005|accessdate=2007-10-19|publisher=King's College London, International Centre for Prison Studies|format=PDF For the latest detailed country data, see cite web|url=|title=Prison Brief for United States of America|date=2006-06-21|accessdate = 2007-10-19|publisher=King's College London, International Centre for Prison Studies There are reports that the People's Republic of China's actual prison population and incarceration rate and North Korea's incarceration rate may exceed those of the United States. See cite web|author=Adams, Cecil|url=|title=Does the United States Lead the World in Prison Population? |date=2004-02-06|accessdate=2007-10-11|publisher=The Straight Dope] As of year-end 2006, a record 7.2 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total, 2.2 million were incarcerated. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, despite having over four times the population of the US. [ "New High In U.S. Prison Numbers"] . By N.C. Aizenman. February 29, 2008. "Washington Post."] [ One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008] . Released Feb. 28, 2008. The Pew Center on the States.]


The federal government, states, counties, and many individual cities have facilities to confine people. Generally, "prison" refers to facilities for holding convicted felons (offenders who commit crimes where the sentence is more than one year). Individuals awaiting trial, being held pending citations for non-custodial offenses, and those convicted of misdemeanors (crimes which carry a sentence of less than one year), are generally held in county jails. In most states, cities operate small jail facilities, sometimes simply referred to as "lock-ups", used only for very short-term incarceration—can be held for up to 72 business hours or up to five days—until the prisoner comes before a judge for the first time or receives a citation or summons before being released or transferred to a larger jail. Some states operate "unified" systems, where the state operates all the jails and prisons. The federal government also operates various "detention centers" in major urban areas or near federal courthouses to hold defendants appearing in federal court.

Many of the smaller county and city jails do not classify prisoners (that is, there is no separation by offense type and other factors). While some of these small facilities operate as "close security" facilities, to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence and increase overall security, others may put many prisoners into the same cells without regard to the criminal histories of the prisoners. Other local jails are large and have many different security levels. For example, one of the largest jails in the United States is in Cook County (located in Chicago). This facility has eleven different divisions (including one medical unit and two units for women prisoners), each classified at a different security level, ranging from dormitory style open housing to super-secure lock-down. In California, to prevent violence, prisoners are segregated by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation while held in county jails and in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's reception centers, where newly committed prisoners are assessed prior to being transferred to their "mainline" (long-term) institutions.

Duration of incarceration

A judge sentences a person convicted of a crime. The length of the prison term depends upon multiple factors including the severity and type of the crime, state and/or federal sentencing guidelines, the convicted's criminal record, and the personal discretion of the judge. These factors may be different in each state and in the federal system as well. The vast majority of criminal convictions arise from plea bargains, in which an agreement is made between prosecutors and defense counsel for the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge for a lesser sentence than they would receive if found guilty at trial.

Some prisoners are given life sentences. In some states, a life sentence means life, without the possibility of parole. In other states, people with life sentences are eligible for parole. In some cases the death penalty may be applied.

Many legislatures continued to reduce discretion 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 [] [] .

ecurity levels

Prisoners 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 six to represent the security level. Level six 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 through IV (minimum to maximum security) to specialized high security units (all considered Level IV) 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 either while 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. These include international and domestic spies, terrorist, 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. The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons operates multiple Supermax facilities, and one such facility that is exclusively Supermax (ADX Florence).

In a maximum security prison or area, all prisoners have individual cells with sliding doors controlled from a secure remote control station. Prisoners are allowed out of their cells one out of twenty four hours. 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.

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. 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.

Prisoners that fall into the medium security group may sleep in dormitories on bunk beds with lockers to store their possessions. 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.

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. 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.

Incarceration rate

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of June 30, 2007, American prisons and jails held 2,299,116 inmates. [ [ Prison Statistics] . Bureau of Justice Statistics. US Department of Justice] In recent decades the U.S. has experienced a surge in its prison population, quadrupling since 1980, partially as a result of mandated sentences that came about during the "war on drugs." Violent crime and property crime have declined since the early 1990s.cite web|url=|title=US Department of Justice on War on drugs|accessdate=2006-12-09]

As of 2004, the three states with the lowest ratio of imprisoned to civilian population are Maine (148 per 100,000), Minnesota (171 per 100,000), and Rhode Island (175 per 100,000). The three states with the highest ratio are Louisiana (816 per 100,000), Texas (694 per 100,000), and Mississippi (669 per 100,000). [cite web|url= |title=Prisoners in 2004 |publisher=Bureau of Justice Statistics|accessdate=2006-06-28|format=PDF]

Nearly one million of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, as well as local jails, are serving time for committing non-violent crimes. [cite web|url= |title=America's One-Million Nonviolent Prisoners |publisher=Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice |accessdate=2006-06-13]

In 2002, 93.2% of prisoners were male. About 10.4% of all black males in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 were sentenced and in prison, compared to 2.4% of Hispanic males and 1.3% of white males. [cite web|url= |title=Prisoners in 2002 |publisher=Bureau of Justice Statistics|accessdate=2006-06-13|format=PDF]

In 2005, about 1 out of every 136 U.S. residents was incarcerated either in prison or jail. [cite news|author=Elizabeth White|title=1 in 136 U.S. Residents Behind Bars|url=|publisher = Associated Press|date=22 May 2006] The total amount being 2,320,359, with 1,446,269 in state and federal prisons and 747,529 in local jails.cite web|url=|title=Prisoners in 2005|author=Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Ph.D.|month=November | year=2006|format=PDF|publisher=U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics|pages=13]

A 2005 report estimated that 27% of federal prison inmates are noncitizens, convicted of crimes while in this country legally or illegally. [ [ GAO-05-337R Information on Criminal Aliens Incarcerated in Federal and State Prisons and Local Jails ] ] However, federal prison inmates are only a 6 percent of the total incarcerated population; noncitizen populations in state and local prisons are more difficult to establish.

The United States has the highest documented per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world.

[ "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005".] A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report. According to a 2006 OJJDP (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) report there were 97,000 held in juvenile facilities as of October 22 2003. [] [] Add those to the total inmates.]

Comparison with other countries

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 737 persons imprisoned per 100,000 (as of 2005). A report released Feb. 28, 2008 indicates that in the United States more than 1 in 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison. The United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population. []

In 2006 the incarceration rate in England and Wales is 139 persons imprisoned per 100,000 residents, while in Norway it is 59 inmates per 100,000, whilst the Australian imprisonment rate is 163 prisoners per 100,000 residents, and the rate of imprisonment in New Zealand last year was 179 per 100,000.

In 2001 the incarceration rate in People's Republic of China was 111 per 100,000 in 2001 (sentenced prisoners only), although this figure is highly disputed. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Ten million prisoners would mean a rate of 793 per 100,000. [This sentence is copied verbatim from]

Prison conditions

The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch raised concerns with prisoner rape and medical care for inmates. [cite web|url= |title=Inhumane Prison Conditions Still Threaten Life, Health of Alabama Inmates Living with HIV/AIDS, According to Court Filings |publisher=Human Rights Watch|accessdate=2006-06-13] In a survey of 1,788 male inmates in Midwestern prisons by "Prison Journal", about 21% claimed they had been coerced or pressured into sexual activity during their incarceration, and 7% claimed that they had been raped in their current facility. [cite web|title=Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men|author=Cindy Struckman-Johnson & David Struckman-Johnson|publisher=The Prison Journal|year=2000|url=]

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". Prisons may outsource medical care to private companies such as Correctional Medical Services, which, according to Hylton's research, try to minimize the amount of care given to prisoners in order to maximize profits.

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." [cite web|url=|title=Gang and Security Threat Group Awareness|publisher=Florida Department of Corrections|accessdate=2006-06-13]

Many prisons in the United States are overcrowded. For example, in California, 33 prisons have a capacity of 100,000, but they hold 170,000 inmates. [Thompson, Don. “Prison Attacks Calling Attention to Overcrowding” The San Diego Union-Tribune. April 5, 2008.] 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 recent years, there has been much debate over the privatization of prisons. The argument for privatization stresses cost reduction, whereas the arguments against it focus on standards of care, and the question of whether a market economy for prisons might not also lead to a market demand for prisoners (tougher sentencing for cheap labor). While privatized prisons have only a short history, there is a long tradition of inmates in state and federal-run prisons undertaking active employment in prison for low pay.

Some advantages of private prisons have been cited. These include flexibility, including the ability to terminate a contract more easily and cost-effectively than it would be to close down a government prison and lay off civil servants in the event of a decline in prison population. Private prisons also have an incentive to look for ways to save on costs; for instance, Travis Snelling of the Corrections Corporation of America notes that his prisons are designed to save on labor, which represents 70% of the total costs over the useful life of a prison. This is particularly important given that posts must often be manned 24 hours a day, requiring more than 5 employees to cover all the shifts. Snelling estimates: "If you can eliminate one post by your architectural design, just one, that'll save you well over $100,000 in a given marketplace, as far as labor is concerned." [citation|title=Crime Pays|year=1984|publisher=60 Minutes|volume=14|number=11|month=November|day=25]

The three leading corporations in the private prison business in the U.S. are the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Cornell Companies.

Private companies which provide services to prisons combine in the American Correctional Association, which advocates legislation favorable to the industry.


The percentage of prisoners in federal and state prisons 55 and older increased by 33% from 2000 to 2005 while the prison population grew by only 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. [ Aging inmates clogging nation's prisons] USA Today] [ Growing burden for aging population] Corrections Correction Network News]

Under U.S. law convicted felons lose their eligibility to apply for Medicare and Medicaid. Housing one prisoner costs a state between $18,000 and $31,000 annually, $33 per day for the average prisoner and $100 per day for an elderly prisoner. Most DOCs report spending more than 10 percent of the annual budget on elderly care. State governments pay all of their inmates' housing costs which significantly increase as prisoners age.


Some feel the high levels of incarceration are due to the long sentences mandated under American law, especially for nonviolent crimes such as theft and drug possession. Some also feel that repeat offenders are not properly handled and that more focus should be on rehabilitation, and that shorter sentences would even reduce the criminal culture in general and especially reduce re-arrest rates for first-time convicts.

Some have criticized the United States for incarcerating a large number of non-violent and victimless offenders;cite web|author=Fellner, Jamie|title=US Addiction to Incarceration Puts 2.3 Million in Prison|publisher=Human Rights Watch|url=|accesesdate=2007-06-02] [cite book|first=Sasha|last=Abramsky|title=Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation|publisher=Thomas Dunne Books|date=January 22, 2002] half of all persons incarcerated under state jurisdiction are for non-violent offences, and 20% (in State prisons, whereas Federal prison percentages are higher) are incarcerated for drug offences. [cite web|url=|title=Prisoners in 2005|publisher=United States Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs|url=|month=November | year=2006|accessdate=2007-06-03|type=PDF|format=PDF] [cite web|url=|title=America's One-Million Nonviolent Prisoners|publisher=Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice|accessdate=2007-06-003] "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." 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. [cite web|url= |title=1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says|date=February 28, 2008|publisher=The New York Times] Because of its size and influence, the U.S. prison industry is often referred to as the prison-industrial complex. Criminal justice policy in the United States has also been criticized for the disproportionate representation of African Americans and other minorities.

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, reveal that the mammoth increase in the United States’ prison population since the 1970s is having profound demographic consequences that disproportionately affect black males. 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. [ [ Bulging Prison System Called Massive Intervention in American Family Life] Newswise, Retrieved on August 3, 2008.]

Cost of incarceration

The United States spends an estimated $60 billion cite news|url= |title=U.S. Prison Study Faults System and the Public |author=Slevin, Peter |date=June 2006|publisher=The Washington Post] each year on corrections. It costs an average of $88 dollars a day per prisoner.


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. [cite web|url= |title=Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994 |publisher=Bureau of Justice Statistics] 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 significantly lower re-arrest rate (54.2%) than every other category of prisoner. 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.

ee also

*Crime in the United States
*Law enforcement in the United States
*Federal Bureau of Prisons
*United States Department of Justice
*List of U.S. federal prisons
*Prisons in California
*Religion in the United States' prisons


External links

* [ Bureau of Justice Statistics - Prisoners in 2005]
* [ "Women in Prison: How It Is With Us", by Assata Shakur]
* [ Ken Silverstein - "U.S.: America's Private Gulag"]
* [ "Orleans Parish Prison before and after Katrina"] from Dollars & Sense magazine
* [ Prison Policy Initiative]
* [ Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005] . U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
* [ Drug War Casualty Statistical Graphs] . The November Coalition. Graphs and bar charts of U.S. and international incarceration totals, rates, etc.. By race, gender, ethnicity, some offenses, etc..
* [ U.S. Incarceration Rate Timeline from 1925] . Yearly totals and rates. State rates for a recent year.
* [ Table lists. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.]
* [ Table 6.13.2005 - Number and rate (per 100,000 U.S. residents) of persons in State and Federal prisons and local jails, United States, 1985, 1990-2005.]
* [ Table 6.9.2003 - Number and rate (per 100,000 juveniles age 10 through upper age of jurisdiction) of juveniles in public and private residential custody facilities, by State, 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2003.]
* USA. [ "Direct expenditures by criminal justice function"] . Columns for Police, Judicial, Corrections. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) chart for last 20 years.
* USA. [ "Direct expenditure by level of government"] . Criminal justice. BJS chart with columns for Federal, State, and Local costs. Last 20 years.

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