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Prisoners in the United States - Statistics & Facts

Ironically, it is the so-called land of the free that houses the highest prison population per capita in the OECD. With rates that have long been more than double that of their closest developmental counterparts, questions are continuously raised both domestically and internationally over why the prison population is so high. This is not a new state of affairs, with the prison population of the United States hovering around the 1.5 million people mark since the turn of the millennium.

The War on Drugs and incarceration

Analysts have often pointed to drug laws in the United States as a reason for the high discrepancy between the criminal justice situation of the United States and their international peers. Since the inception of “the war on drugs” by President Nixon, the United States has housed many criminals who were imprisoned for so-called low level drug offenses. Unfortunately, the war on drugs has combined with socio-economic disparities, such as poverty rates, to produce incarceration rates that are extraordinarily higher for Black men in America. Several documentaries and social-scientists have cited the effect the war on drugs has had on racial inequality in the United States, with incarceration rates being a concrete yet saddening example.

The death penalty and prisons

Depending on the nature of one’s crime, it may be better to be a prisoner in some states than others. As of 2021, 24 states still have the death penalty, and three states have the death penalty, but a moratorium on executions. Although California had the highest number of people on death row in 2019, Texas is the undisputed capital of capital punishment. Between 1976 and 2020, 569 people were executed for their crimes in Texas.

There are of course those who benefit from the large prison population of the United States, namely those that provide services in the highly profitable prison industry. In 2019, a little over 53.5 billion U.S. dollars were spent on state correctional facilities in the United States. Unsurprisingly, such astronomical expenditure levels have prompted critics to voice their concern over the extent of privatization present in the American prison system. After all, it appears unlikely those running the prisoners or coordinating prisoner-related services will seek lower incarceration rates in the future, so long as their bottom line is dependent on the number of those unwillingly donning an orange jumpsuit.


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