America, land of the free. Not for the more than 2.2 million people who are imprisoned in the United States. This number makes America the country with the highest prison population in the world. It also has the highest prison rate in the world at approximately 724 per 100,000 people. With such a large number of incarcerated individuals, one of the major problems the U.S. is facing today is the overcrowding of correctional facilities, even if there are currently more than 5,000 jails and prisons already (more than the number of colleges in the country). To get a better grasp of how big the problem is, check out these statistics.
1. Since the 1980s, the prison population in the United States has more than quadrupled.
It was during the 80s when the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drugs went into effect. Between 1975 and 1991, the prison population also grew due to the dramatic rise of crime rates. Aside from that, property crime rose by 200 percent while violent crime increased by 400 percent between 1960 and 1991. This scale of crime rate growth during these periods was drastic. Experts believe it could take nearly 90 years for the U.S. prison population to get down to where it was in 1980.
2. America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but it also houses 25 percent of the prison population of the world.
The United States has locked up half a million more people than China. China has a population that is five times larger than the U.S. These statistics show that it could possibly be the only society in human history that has incarcerated so many of its own citizens.
3. Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the end of 2014 showed that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and 18 states operated their prison facilities at more than 100 percent of operational capacity.
‘Operational capacity’ is the point at which prisoners can access services and programming and be accommodated by staff. These states are: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington. The Bureau of Prisons was 128 percent over maximum capacity. The report also showed that Illinois was housing 48,300 inmates by the end of 2014 but the prison facilities in the state were designed to house only 28,200 people.
4. At present, the U.S. has 100 private prisons with a population of 62,000. Around 10 years ago, the United States had only 5 private prisons that could accommodate 2,000 inmates.
And within the next decade, the number of private prisons is expected to increase to 360,000.
So why are all these numbers so concerning? Because overpopulation in prison means inmates are not able to access proper healthcare, programming, and other services that are important for their rehabilitation. It also means the safety of both staff and prisoners can be jeopardized as overcrowding leads to poor living conditions, which can cause violent riots, not to mention a potential increase in gang violence. The looming problems and the surprising statistics have moved advocates to push more for reducing mass incarceration and for reforms in sentencing.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.