It is common knowledge that the United States incarcerates more of its civilians than any other first-world nation in the world. In fact, our incarceration rates are so high that they exceed the rates in many third-world nations and approach or exceed the incarceration rates in countries with governments that the United States has labeled as dictatorships or a threat to freedom.
Because jail numbers are in constant fluctuation, it can be impossible to determine the exact number of incarcerated people in the United States at any discrete point in time. The Bureau of Justice Statistics administers census forms to local jails in order to provide snapshots of the local criminal justice systems in the United States. The most recent data available is for the 2014 census. According to that census, adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at the end of 2014, which meant that 1 in 36 adults, or almost 3% of the adult population was either in jail or under community supervision in 2014. While this number may seem high, it was actually the lowest reported rate since 1996. In fact, while jail and prison populations have been a significant concern for decades, they have actually been declining since 2007, which may reflect changes in the enforcement of some laws, particularly drug laws that were seen as driving prison populations upwards. Despite that, the United States continues to have the highest percentage of incarcerated people of any Western nation and of any First-world nation.
What drives these high incarceration numbers, which, despite a recent downward trend, are significantly higher than incarceration numbers in the 1970s? Well, many people will tell you that we are waging a war on crime and that these incarceration numbers reflect a serious effort to get tough on crime and tough on criminals. However, when you look at the crime rates in the U.S., those assertions do not seem very credible. For example, 2014 is the last year with reliable homicide statistics, and it had a 51 year low in homicide rates. This fact is not an anomaly; despite the public perception that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, violent crimes rates have actually dropped significantly from their high in the 1970s. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, even since the early 1990s, the violent crime rate has dropped by approximately half. The decline in crime rates holds true even when we examine crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault, which are taken more seriously than they were in prior times, which is believed to have encouraged people to report those crimes.
Where do we put all of these people? Well, there are over 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities and an additional 3,200 local and county jails. The prevalence of correctional facilities in your area depends upon your state, since incarceration levels vary greatly by state, but to put that in perspective, there are more prisons or jails in the United States than there are degree-granting universities. In fact, throughout the American South, a greater percentage of people are incarcerated than are currently attending a college or university. Furthermore, looking at the incarceration rates by smaller geographic area than states can be somewhat misleading; most states place their prisons in relatively unpopulated areas, which can really skew the numbers when examining the percent of that county’s population that is incarcerated. However, looking at the incarceration numbers by state can reveal significant details about that state’s approach to criminal justice.
Regardless of where you live, when you look at those numbers, you have probably realized that, in the course of your lifetime, you are likely to known someone who is incarcerated. That leads many of us to wonder: what is life like if you are in jail? There is no single correct answer to that question, because the answer depends significantly on where you are incarcerated, and, to a lesser extent, why you are incarcerated.
Generally, life in jail or prison in the United States is difficult. Much of this difficulty is by design. For people who are in jail awaiting trial (pre-trial detainees), the purpose of incarceration is to ensure that they show up for their trial. Therefore, jails need to be difficult to escape. In addition, to ensure the safety of the inmates, all of the areas of the jail need to be highly visible, which greatly reduces inmate privacy. Furthermore, many pre-trial detainees are accused of violent crimes and/or have violent criminal records, which can make jail a very dangerous place for all of its detainees. For post-conviction inmates, incarceration is meant to serve a punitive function, in addition to providing secure detention for the inmates. As a result, some of the difficulties of incarceration are there by design.
However, other difficulties that an inmate may encounter while incarcerated are indicative of a flawed criminal justice system. For example, inmates are at much greater risk of physical violence and sexual assault than people in the non-incarcerated population. Inmates are supposed to be protected from violence, but overpopulation, under-staffing, and staff members that participate in or permit violence help contribute to the problem. In addition, many prisons are not properly maintained so that problems associated with disrepair, such as non-functioning facilities and vermin infestations, are endemic and recurring. Prison overcrowding also contributes to the rapid and widespread spread of contagious diseases, and a lack of adequate healthcare resources can make even minor diseases significantly dangerous.