Op-Ed: The US continues to be first in inmate population in the world

Posted Feb 21, 2013 by Ken Hanly
The US has the most prisoners of any nation in the world and by far the highest incarceration rate. Although the US has just 5 percent of the world's population, it has one quarter of the global prisoner population.
Prison fence.
Prison fence.
While there was actually a slight reduction during 2012, there are over two million people in the US either in jail or awaiting trial. In the last thirty years those held in federal prisons has increased by almost 800%. The incarceration rate in the US is 743 for every 100,000 of population. Mandatory sentences for drug offenses help swell the prison population plus tough on crime legislation such as the three strikes and you are out laws. US policy is distinguished not just by the rate of imprisonment but the length of sentences, often for non-violent crime.
A ranking of countries by incarceration rates shows the US clearly out in front. However the rates tell you nothing about prison conditions or security otherwise in a country. These rankings are perhaps based on material a bit older than the material from Al Jazeera cited above and discussed in the appended video. The US is ranked number one of 221 countries.with 730 inmates per one hundred thousand. Russia is in the top ten at 502. Canada is ranked 132 at 114 per hundred thousand. China is well down the list at rank 123 and from 121-170 per 100,000. The rankings tell nothing about penal conditions. Afghanistan and Denmark are tied at rank 170. The lowest incarceration rate is in San Marino which in February 2011 had just one prisoner in its single small jail.
San Quentin state prison sign
San Quentin state prison sign
David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project notes:"There has been in this country over the last 30 years a relentless upward climb in the incarcerated population and disturbing as the situation is with the federal prison system, that is really only the tip of the iceberg because the federal prison system is only about 10 percent of the total number of people incarcerated in this country. On any given day, we have about 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities." According to the US Congressional Research Service, the population of US federal prisons went from around 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2012. The report of the Service says that the federal prison system was 39% over capacity in 2011. High security prisons were 51% over capacity and medium security prisons by 55% in the same year. Overcrowding results in worse security and safety conditions for both inmates and staff.
This overcrowding increases the demand for more private prisons. The private prison industry claims to save the government money. No doubt private industry groups also contribute towards tougher crime legislation so as to increase the demand for their services.
Almost half of those in federal prisons are there for drug offenses, indicating how costly is the war on drugs. About 12% are in the prisons for immigration violations. The idea that crime can be controlled simply by incarcerating more people and building more prisons seems not to work. Matthew Mangino, a former District Attorney in Pennsylvania said:"Policy makers have come to the realisation, on a state and federal level, that you can't necessarily build yourself out of a crime situation, that we just can't continue at these numbers to incarcerate people, and the impact on state budgets and the money spent on a federal level to deal with mass incarceration has just left us in a lot of ways unprotected in other areas."
In the US minorities represent more than 70% of inmates. Sociologists find that the rise in incarceration rates is associated with reduced social mobility and trap both the prisoners and their families in poverty. African-Americans represent about 12% of the US population but are 37% of those in federal prisons.
The US federal prison system is increasingly costly. In 2000, cost per inmate was $19,571 annually but in 2011 it was $26,094. Although crime rates in the US have been falling since the early 1990's, the government continues to pass laws that ensure more go to jail and for longer times. More offenses require a mandatory minimum sentence. Penalties for drug offenses have been increased.
California has been ordered by the Supreme Court to reduce its prison overcrowding. Budget crises in different states have prompted states to reduce overcrowding. For-profit companies clamor to fill the expanding need for more and cheaper prison accommodation. These companies now control 18% of federal prisoners. They also have 6.7% of the US state inmates. Most prisons that were built in the US between 2000 and 2005 are privately run.