A Nation Incarcerated: The American Gaol Crisis

The British game show Quite Interesting hosted by the comedic actor Stephen Fry tackles the subject of the American gaol (the Oxford Dictionary spelling of jail) population. As always, the erudite QI uncovers some statistical gems demonstrating how insane our criminal justice policy is.

  • The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world with nearly one percent of the US population behind bars. One in ninety-nine adults are behind bars. No society in history has imprisoned more of its citizens than the United States.

  • There are more black 17 year olds in prison than in college.

  • As a percentage of the population, we imprison more than twice as much as South Africa. Our rate of incarceration is more than three times higher than Iran's and more than six times higher than China's.

  • As Stephen Fry notes, prisons are a big business going as far as suggesting that we have re-invented the slave trade.  Perhaps, that's a bit much but it's also hard to ignore that prisons are a big business in the United States. While it is illegal to import manufactured goods made by forced prison labor, it's not illegal to produce them domestically. Take the Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a self-sustaining, self-funded corporation established in 1934 by executive order, who employs more than 30,000 inmates in over 100 FPI factories in prisons across the US. UNICOR's "employees" have grown by a third in the last decade. FPI, who manufactures under the trade name UNICOR, manufactures products such as office furniture, clothing, beds and linens, electronics equipment, and eyewear. It also offers services including data entry, bulk mailing, laundry services, recycling, and refurbishing of vehicle components. Twenty-one percent of US manufactured office furniture is produced by prison labor.

  • Minimum estimate of annual value of prison and jail industrial output exceeded $2 billion dollars in 2006 with FPI accounting for over a quarter of that amount. In 2009, FPI reported sales of $885 million. The minimum wage paid at a UNICOR plants is $0.23 an hour. By way of comparison, the minimum wage paid in Haiti is $0.30 an hour while the average hourly earnings of a non-prisoner U.S. worker making office furniture: $13.04.

  • Nevada pays its prison work force $0.13 an hour. Georgia and Texas do not pay a wage at all.

Here are some other disturbing facts:

  • The United States has just over four percent of the world's population, but over twenty-five percent of the world's prison population.

  • The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million inmates, while having four times the population, thus having only about 18% of the US incarceration rate.

  • On a per capita basis, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world with 756 per 100,000 of the national population behind bars We are followed by Russia (629), Rwanda (604), St Kitts & Nevis (588), Cuba (c.531), U.S. Virgin Is. (512), British Virgin Is. (488), Palau (478), Belarus (468), Belize (455), Bahamas (422), Georgia (415), American Samoa (410), Grenada (408) and Anguilla (401).

  • According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS): "In 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend — 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.

  • The country's prison population topped 2 million inmates for the first time in history on June 30, 2002 meaning that the US prison population has grown by nearly 50% in just eight years. At year end 2008, the total incarcerated population equaled 2,424,279 inmates.

  • The majority (62.6%) of these inmates were held in state or federal correctional facilities. Another 32.4% of these inmates were held in local jails.

  • Seventy percent of prisoners in the United States are non-whites even though non-whites make up only about a third of the US populations. One out of every 20 black males over the age of 18 is in prison. That compares to one in 180 white males over the age of 18. In five states, between one in 13 and one in 14 black men is in prison. One in nine African-American males will spend at least one year in jail over the course of their lifetimes.

  • Most drug offenders are white - five times as many whites use drugs as blacks -yet blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison. Of the 253,300 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses at yearend 2005, 113,500 (44.8%) were black, 51,100 (20.2%) were Hispanic, and 72,300 (28.5%) were white.

  • The non-violent prison population, alone, is larger than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska.

  • According to the American Corrections Association, the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the US is $67.55. State prisons held 253,300 inmates for drug offenses in 2005. That means states spent approximately $17,110,415 per day to imprison drug offenders, or $6,245,301,475 per year.

  • States spent $42.89 billion on prison and corrections in 2005 alone. To compare, states only spent $24.69 billion on public assistance. From 1984 to 1996, California built 21 new prisons, and only one new university.

  • Between 1979 and 2000, the number of additional prisons ranged from 19 prisons in Missouri to 120 prisons in Texas. The growth in Texas equates to an extraordinary average annual increase of 5.7 additional prisons per year over the 21-year period. Over this time frame, Texas has increased its prisons by a stunning 706 percent.

You can learn more at the Prison Policy Initiative and at Drug War Facts.

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