Millions served: Pie chart gives fresh look at who's in U.S. jails and prisons

Reporters generally do a lousy job of analyzing the incarceration rate in the United States -- which, despite recent sentencing reforms, remains the highest in the world, with more citizens per capita behind bars than in Cuba, Rwanda or Russia. That's why a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative, featuring a nifty pie chart that parses out the distinct systems of confinement in the U.S., is such a welcome tool -- it locks down who's locked up in our jails, prisons, juvenile and immigration detention facilities and more, giving a startling snapshot of Fortress America.

How many people do we have in our hoosegows? The short answer is 2.4 million people, with the vast majority of those in 1,719 state prisons and 3,283 local jails. But don't take my word for it. Here's the chart:

This is, of course, the average incarcerated population on a given day. There's actually a sizable amount of what the authors call "churn" in and out of lockup, which "underscores how naive it is to conceive of prisons as separate from the rest of our society. In addition to the 688,000 people released from prisons each year, almost 12 million people cycle through local jails each year."

Some other salient points from the full report:

  • Note that more than half the jail population is made up of people awaiting trial, including those who haven't yet made bail or can't afford it.
  • A sizable number of those actually convicted and serving time are doing so for drug offenses -- 237,000 people in state prisons, 94,600 in federal prisons, and 4,986 in juvie. But that doesn't reflect the total number of drug convictions, since prisoners are generally categorized by their most serious offense; someone convicted of assault could also be serving a drug-related sentence.
  • More than 20 percent of the juveniles behind bars are there for a technical violation of probation or parole or a "status" offense -- not a crime, by adult standards, but running away, truancy, etc.
  • Immigration offenses fall into two distinct categories. While there are 22,000 people we're keeping around in federal prisons for violating immigration laws, another 34,00 are being detained in ICE facilities because we're trying to deport them.
The PPI authors suggest that their "whole-pie approach" can give citizens "some of the tools they need to demand meaningful changes to how we do justice." From our Crime and Punishment archive: "The Caged Life: Is Thomas Silverstein a prisoner of his own deadly past -- or the first in a new wave of locked-down lifers?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast