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The prison spiral


Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. Shows the number incarcerated per 100,000 people, and includes those incarcerated in both prisons and jails.

THE U.S. HAS MORE prisoners per 100,000 residents than any other country. No one else even comes close. It’s a dubious and expensive distinction. And the closest neighbors are not the best of company, mostly police states or troubled democracies with sketchy reputations, like Cuba, Russia or Belarus.

AMERICAN PRISON population skyrocketed from 1980 till the mid 2000’s. Growth has since tapered, but the U.S. is still at breathtaking highs, as “mandatory minimums” became the norm, often putting nonviolent offenders away for 20 years or more.

PUSHBACK BUILT over the past decade. States began to realize they could not afford more prisons, conservatives discovered there nothing conservative about wasting tax dollars and everyone began to question the human and social implications.

THE NUMBER OF INMATES in state and federal U.S. prisons per 100,000 people, as it has climbed since 1980 before leveling off a few years ago. Because it excludes jails, it shows a lower per 100,000 number. But the relative position of the U.S. to the world remains the same.

High incarceration costs

CRIMINAL JUSTICE COSTS quadrupled over two decades, the Pew Center on the States reports, from about $12 billion to about $60 billion. Corrections is among the fastest growing items in state budgets.

ONE IN EIGHT full-time state government employees works in corrections. In many states, the tax dollars spent on incarceration have now outstripped spending on higher education. A year’s incarceration in Connecticut costs more than room and board at Yale, and a year in a Rhode Island prison costs more than Brown University.

FOR YEARS POLICY MAKERS seemed oblivious to spiraling corrections cost. No longer. With California ordered in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court to bring its prison population in line with designed capacity, the nation’s largest state has been forced to confront the cost. Texas went through a similar story, choosing between building more prisons and figuring out ways to keep people out.


Family and community effects

ROUGHLY ONE in one hundred American adults was incarcerated in 2008, Pew reported. That ratio climbed steadily after 1971, after sitting at roughly 1 in 1,000 for five decades. One percent may not sound bad, but the numbers are devastating when you factor in geographic and demographic concentrations: one in 37 Latino men, one in 15 black men, and one in 9 black men between 20 and 34 years old.

WHEN YOU HOLLOW out zip codes, you hollow out neighborhoods, and you remove fathers, brothers, uncles and most male father figures. (And in many cases, aunts and sisters.) “Male scarcity” is the single biggest factor in predicting the number of assaults involving young men, according to recent research at the University of Michigan.

THE INCARCERATION BINGE has exacerbated a feedback loop, says Daniel Kruger, who spearheaded the Michigan study: kids who grow up without male role models get in trouble, land in prison, perpetuating the problem to the next generation.