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The Land

of the Free

Ranks First When It Comes to Locking Up Its Residents

A Collaboration between Unis Human Rights Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

The United States is often called the land of the free, but it ranks number one when it comes to locking up its residents. The U.S. has slightly less than 5% of the world’s population, but over 20% of its prisoners. There are currently over 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., an increase of 500% over the past 40 years. They are held in different systems of confinement.

• 1.3 million are incarcerated in over 1000 state prisons.

• 189,000 are held in over 100 federal prisons.

• 700,000 are held in over 3000 local jails. 

• Over 50,000 youth are detained in the juvenile justice system.

• 39,000 immigrants are held in over 200 immigrant detention facilities. 

• 1,300 are held in military jails (About 65%  were serving time for committing violent or nonviolent sex offenses).

• 12,300 are held in prisons in the five US territories and commonwealths.

• Thousands more people are detained in Indian County jails, civil commitment centers, and state psychiatric hospitals.

    In total, around 6.6 million are under the control of the correctional system through probation, parole or in various correctional facilities (as described above). Over 625,000 people were released from prison in 2016, and 70 million Americans have criminal records, about the same number as those who have 4-year college degrees. Overall, 1 in every 38 residents of the U.S. is under some form of penal control.

    For most of its history, the U.S. was no different from other industrialized nations when it came to the imprisonment of its residents. The rate began to increase in the 1970s, and hit its peak at 760 per 100,000 residents in 2007 and 2008.  The past few years have seen a decline. In 2016, the rate of incarceration for adults in state and federal prisons was 582 per 100,000 residents, down 2% from 2015 and the lowest observed since 1997, but still almost 7 times higher than the median rate for European countries, which was 84.

    Mass incarceration refers to the unprecedented size and scale of incarceration and social control, both in the U.S. and in any other liberal democracy. It is also characterized by the systematic imprisonment of certain groups of people: in the U.S., these are people of color and the poor. The term mass incarceration is a variant of “mass imprisonment,” used to describe the growing prison population in the U.S., which reached 2 million at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

    The phrase mass incarceration drew public attention through the work of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander describes a system that is not only unprecedented in its numbers, but in its successful targeting and incarceration of men of color. As of 2016, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons for Black adults is 1,608 per 100,000. For Hispanics, it is 856 per 100,000, and for Whites it is 274 per 100,000.

    1 in every 38 residents of the U.S. is under some form of penal control.

    Mass incarceration, Visualized

    Test your knowledge.

    Chapter 01 — Question 01

    There are over ____ people behind bars in the U.S.

    Correct! Wrong!

    Yep! 2 Million. But the number of people under the control of the criminal justice system increases to 6.6 million when those on probation or parole are included.

    Chapter 01 — Question 01


    Director of the Healing Justice Program at the American Friends Service Committee

    Ending mass incarceration has to start with the way we look at each other. Racism allows us to see each other as the “other.” If you're black or Latina or Latino, the “other” becomes less than, making it easier to punish and not worry about. So the beginning is “how do you see me and how do I see you?” If I don't see you as equal or fully human, which is what racism is, then I'm more comfortable punishing you. I’m a parent of three young men of color, who are living the issues that I work around. I get to work for my children, literally and figuratively. Every day I go to work with one goal and that is to decrease the likelihood that one of my children will go to prison. That’s it. I wake up, and think how am I going to further that cause today? And I go home and I judge whether or not I was successful.

    Read LEWIS Story
    Continue to

    Chapter Two