Land of the Free? US Has 25 Percent of the World’s Prisoners

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A corridor in a prison at night showing jail cells illuminated by various ominous lights

Credit: Shutterstock

The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. In large part, that’s the result of the “war on drugs” and long mandatory minimum sentences, but it also reflects America’s tendency to criminalize acts that other countries view as civil violations.

In 2010, The Economist highlighted a case in which four Americans were arrested for importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than in cardboard boxes. That violated a Honduran law which that country no longer enforces, but because it’s still on the books there its enforced here. “The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece.” When the article was published 10 years later, two of them were still behind bars.

A UN report noted that Alabama officials had arrested dozens of people who were too poor to repair septic systems that violated state health laws. In one case, authorities took steps to arrest a 27-year-old single mother living in a mobile home with her autistic child for the same “crime.” Replacing the system would have cost more than her $12,000 annual income, according to the report.

As The Economist put it:

America imprisons people for technical violations of immigration laws, environmental standards and arcane business rules. So many federal rules carry criminal penalties that experts struggle to count them. Many are incomprehensible. Few are ever repealed, though the Supreme Court… pared back a law against depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”, which prosecutors loved because they could use it against almost anyone. Still, they have plenty of other weapons. By counting each e-mail sent by a white-collar wrongdoer as a separate case of wire fraud, prosecutors can threaten him with a gargantuan sentence unless he confesses, or informs on his boss. The potential for injustice is obvious.

About 10 percent of America’s prisoners are housed in the federal corrections system.  Last week, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General released its annual review of DOJ operations. And couched in typically cautious bureaucratic language, the report details a growing crisis within the federal prison system that threatens to undermine the DOJ’s other vital functions, including the enforcement of civil rights legislation, counter-terrorism and crime-fighting.

According to the report:

The Department of Justice (Department) is facing two interrelated crises in the federal prison system. The first is the continually increasing cost of incarceration, which, due to the current budget environment, is already having an impact on the Department’s other law enforcement priorities. The second is the safety and security of the federal prison system, which has been overcrowded for years and, absent significant action, will face even greater overcrowding in the years ahead.

The report notes that Washington’s push for austerity is aggravating the problem. The federal prison population has grown by almost 40 percent since 2001, but the budget for the Bureau of Prisons — after rising by about a third between 2001 and 2011 — has fallen by nearly 12 percent since then. And costs for services like pre-trial detentions have more than doubled over the past 12 years. According to the White House budget, the cost of incarcerating federal prisoners is expected to continue to grow, and the Inspector General notes that there’s “no evidence that the cost curve will be broken anytime soon.”

Some of that cost growth is the result of an aging prison population. According to the report, in just the past three years, the number of inmates over the age of 65 has grown by almost a third, while the population under 30 fell by 12 percent. “Elderly inmates are roughly two to three times more expensive to incarcerate than their younger counterparts,” according to the review.

Several factors have contributed to the growing numbers held in federal facilities. Primary among them is a longstanding trend of prosecuting more cases that had previously been handled by state and local courts in the federal system.

By one estimate, the number of federal criminal offenses grew by 30 percent between 1980 and 2004; indeed, there are now well over 4,000 offenses carrying criminal penalties in the United States Code.  In addition, an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 federal regulations can be enforced criminally.

Previous Inspector General reviews had found that programs which might have eased the overcrowded system – like a compassionate release program for sick and infirm inmates, and another that allows foreign nationals to serve out their sentences in their home countries – have been underutilized and/or badly mismanaged.

A growing prison population and a shrinking budget for housing it is also creating serious security problems. The report notes that while the ratio of inmates to correctional officers in the five largest state correctional systems was 6-to-1 in 2005, the federal system has 10 inmates for every officer.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder released the DOJ’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which, among other reforms, directs prosecutors to avoid filing charges carrying long mandatory sentences against drug offenders unless they are violent, connected to cartels or gangs, or have significant criminal histories. But the IG’s report suggests that the impact of these changes may be limited because many of these offenders would have already qualified for a “safety valve” that Congress created in the 1990s which allows for their early release.

The problems detailed in the Inspector General’s report merely scratch the surface, as around nine out of 10 prisoners are held in state and local facilities. According to a 2012 report in The New York Times, state spending on prisons is now growing faster than any other budget item other than Medicaid. California now spends more on its prisons than its higher education system – a stark reversal from thirty years ago, when it spent three times as much educating its citizens than locking them up.

Further reading: Liliana Segura’s report on the growth of the private prison industry in The Nation, and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ fact sheet, “Torture: The Use of Solitary Confinement in US Prisons.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    The disparity in who gets locked up and those who have MONEY is the reason that when people are saying the Pledge of allegiance, I end it “…with liberty and justice for those who can afford it.”

    The United States has two kinds of justice, one for the poor and another for the wealthy. Recently, in Dallas, Texas, a 16 year-old boy, who killed four human beings was not given so much as an hour in prison; he was sent to California for rehab and was given ten yeas of probation. He wasn’t even given time for being DRUNK while driving.
    He was, his defense attorney said, a “victim of affluenza, a word he made up to explain that the kid was never punished for anything he had done. However, a BLACK teenager was given a life sentence.
    It is wrong,wrong, wrong, but nobody will say a word…yet.

  • Tom Uyemura

    I enjoyed the article Mr. Holland and found it very informative. I have a question as how the percentage of the U.S. incarcerated population compares to other societies in the past. I think this would put the problem of mass incarceration into a clearer context. For example, compared to the Soviet Gulogs, pre-revolutionary France of the 1790’s or add your own comparison. Thank You .

  • Anonymous

    Left out of this article is the fact that minorities are disportionately represented in the prison system where they get to do slave labor for corporations and lose thier rights to vote in many states. Disenfranchizement of voting is the main reason that this is so.

  • Anonymous

    For sure, this will not be remedied by privations of prisons. For what it costs to keep a man in prison for a year, we could send two deserving young people to college for four years. There should be some appeals process where bad laws should be taken off the books.
    CA tried to eliminate the death sentence because those on death row have rights to state funded appeals and processes that make death row significantly more expensive than life in prison. Perhaps because so many voters are uninformed, it was voted down.
    The error of lobster tails in plastic should have resulted in a fine. I still like to think of prisons as a way to protect the innocent, not to punish the guilty.
    In the case of the woman taking care of her daughter in the trailer, the state would have been better served replacing the septic system. Instead they now assume the cost of incarcerating the woman and providing for her autistic child. The state’s stupidity of that choice cost taxpayer many times more than simply protecting the public from sewerage.

  • Anonymous

    In the 1950s we bragged that We’re #1
    Now, we’re #1 in

    Incarcerating people
    Outsourcing jobs
    Drone strikes
    Meddling in other countries’ affairs
    Firearm deaths

  • Anonymous

    Good point. Do you know what per cent of the Soviet population was incarcerated, especially in the Stalin years? Factor in Stalin’s numerous purges. If these people were incarcerated rather than executed, what would that figure be? Still, the 25% ou incarcerated people being in the US in not good.

  • Jeffrey William Lynch

    The War on Drugs was planned and implemented by our government to create this massive money making prison industrial complex that we now have. Now we can add ObamaCare to add to the list to increase the numbers of poor Americans that will be locked up in the coming FEMA prison camps. In an ABC interview, the President said that jail time would not be ruled out for those who refused to participate in this Orwellian government mandate. America: Home of the free?

  • Anonymous

    Oy. No, there are no enforcement mechanisms in the health care law.

    FEMA camps!

  • Anonymous

    According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, our incarceration rate is 716 per 100,000. Cuba’s is 510 per 100,000. North Korea is estimated to have between 600-800 per 100,000, but that’s just an estimate.

    I have seen an equally rough estimate that Stalin imprisoned 3,000 per 100,000 in 1936, but I’d stress that it’s just a ballpark figure.

  • JonThomas

    While I am not defending any practice, I think it good to point out that there is a huge difference between incarceration rates due to ‘purges’ (usually temporary action against one’s political, ideological, racial, etc… perceived enemies) and long term culturally adopted (accepted) norms.

    If one is trying to understand the issue, with the goal of correcting any problems, or creating a better national environment, it is important to note that imprisonment for political reasons would require one type of fix, but finding a better, more efficient and effective course for a culture which finds imprisonment as a solution for societal ills (such as you described in the article,) requires a different set of reforms.

    Lumping the 2 together, or drawing conclusions based on comparisons simply because they have incarceration in common, is not very beneficial beyond seeing curious statistics in print.

    It might present interesting factoids, but unfortunately will not help in creating solutions.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, I should know by now that the reason for everything (that is bad) is the ACA. FEMA prison camps, lol. Health care for those who need it is not Orwellian, sorry bud.

  • Jeffrey William Lynch

    Ok so I tried to respond to you earlier and I suppose my rebuttal was a little too extreme for the moderator of this site. I’ll try to temper it a little. I agree that Health care for those who need it is not a bad idea. That’s a nice talking point. If you take the time to look past the talking points you will discover that this plan like many “official” plans say one thing and then do another. There is much more to this legislation than what the President has presented. This is an initial framework for more legislation that will be added onto the plan, than just the talking points. And my main complaint is that the entire thing is a massive illusion just like the War on Drugs has been and will continue to be nothing but Smoke and Mirrors. Guess I am not permitted to give specific facts to back up my arguments and theories that demonstrate the diabolic nature of this plan. I am hoping it is due to what psychologists call “Cognitive Dissonance.” It’s a shame that certain topics are censored even on sites like this.

  • moderator

    Please read our comment policy before posting. It clearly states, “If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.”

    Thank You,
    Sean @ Moyers

  • Anonymous

    From time to time since some 30 years United Prisoner Breeding Nation in World Leading Jailer Land discovers the same fact for though on crime politicians and happy sentencing fellow citizen. And the most effective educational program in dictatorial surrounding commence for same-sex union. Kudos to Jack.
    Drug relate crime law is supported by Drug Barons reinvested money in private prisons, The Prison Industrial Complex.

  • PennLawyer

    of prisons is a huge money-maker in the U.S. Back when I was working
    for the Pennsylvania state legislature in the 90’s, the legislators campaigned on a
    “get-tough-on-crime” platform by bragging how they had legislatively
    changed the penalties via increased
    mandatory lengths of sentences; 3-strikes-you’re out mandatory life
    sentences; etc. Of course the legislators also got substantial campaign
    “donations”, i.e, bribes from for-profit prison operators to create new
    crimes & increase sentence length. Promised savings to the states
    have not materialized and corruption abounds. Here in PA: in the Kids
    for cash scandal, Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp, a private prison
    company which runs juvenile facilities, was found guilty of paying two
    judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, $2.6m to send 2000 children
    to their prisons for such crimes as trespassing in vacant buildings and
    stealing DVDs from Wal-Mart. Additionally, since state
    residential centers for the mentally ill and mentally retarded were closed and residents put into privatized “group homes” in the communities, many of
    them got in trouble with the law such that some 20% of prisoners, are
    diagnosed but untreated as mentally ill and or retarded. Another area
    in which the USA is Number One in exploiting its citizens.

  • Anonymous

    It’s called criminalizing the poor. This is where fiscal conservatives and social conservatives are divided. Social conservatives would rather put poor people in jail than give them welfare, at ten times the cost of welfare.

  • Anonymous

    Within 20 years, seniors will make up the majority of prisoners. The real criterion is you have to be poor. Criminal law is no longer about public safety. Seniors are already beginning to fit that bill.

  • Anonymous

    The U.S. incarcerates a higher proportion of citizens than North Korea. Obviously, this is politics, not public safety!

  • JonThomas

    Public safety is politics.

    Again, I am not defending any practice, or saying that any such example is more right, or more wrong, but…

    There is a huge difference between opportunist politicians who use use the legislative process, and the public’s cultural values to make themselves appear tough on crime (as in mandatory sentencing,) and dictatorships who use incarceration to *Purge* their enemies.

  • Anonymous

    Now that can’t be accurate; only 25%?

  • hp b

    Well we ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.
    With the fast growing private prison industry’s 90% occupancy requirement, the neo-press gangs have only just begun drumming up ‘bidness.’
    Soon, the poor shanghaied will be referred to as ‘associates.’
    A kinder gentler reference.

  • Eileen Kuch

    The incarceration rate in the US exceeds that of not only N. Korea, but that of China and Russia as well. Therefore, the US Govt has no room whatsoever to criticize any human rights abuses by incarceration of citizens by any of these countries. Doing so shows only hypocrisy on this govt’s part.

  • Anonymous

    And debtors prisons are just around the corner

  • hp b

    The culmination of the world’s biggest oxymoron – ‘Judeo-Christian’
    The largest collective of bragging and congratulatory self delusion the world has ever know. (wait until they unleash their (godly) nukes)

  • CJ

    UNICOR, Prison Industies, Inc = Prison Slave labor. land of the free? Right…

  • Anonymous

    The reason why – is simple – those who take the law into their own hands are those who think JONN Q. PUBLIC ows them a living or owes them a FREE this that or the other thing.
    You can paint your own picture as to what ethnic groujp – these people belong to..