Important Facts About Mass Incarceration In The US

Published February 11th, 2020

The US holds just 5% of the world’s population but it has the unfortunate reputation of having the most number of its citizens in prison. Yes, mass incarceration in the US is real and it should be a cause for great concern.

As of 2016, around 2.2 million adults are locked up in US jails and prisons. That’s about 25% of the country’s total population. For the past 50 years, the number of incarcerated has grown to a whopping 700% – the fastest in the world.

Here are five other things you didn’t know about mass incarceration in the US.


The thing with mass incarceration is it hits the poor harder than the rich. It is estimated that around 600,000 people (or 2/3 of the total inmate population) have not been convicted of a crime. They just can’t afford bail. So, the bottom line is money decides who gets out and who doesn’t. (Related: Jailing the Innocent: Wrongful Conviction Statistics in the US)

For those who have the financial capacity to post bail, getting out of jail is a piece of cake. Otherwise, they get stuck inside or forced to avail of a high-interest bail bond. (Related: Can You Legally Get Out of a Bail Bond Contract?)


Most people blame the government’s war on drugs for the burgeoning prison population. But that is not the case at all. The real problem lies in the inconsistent law enforcement. Some states punish drug offenses more heavily than others.

Take for example the three-strike rule in California. Under this, if someone has been convicted of a serious felony case twice before, the third time will earn them a sentence of 25 years to life. Serious felonies robbery, arson, criminal threats and giving illegal drugs to a minor. In other states, some of these crimes are not considered a serious felony and thus won’t qualify the offender for the three-strike rule.

A pair of hands belonging to a young prisoner of color leaning against the prison fence.


Even though African-Americans comprise only 12% of the country’s residents, they represent 37.5% of the inmate population. This brings to light how minorities are disproportionately affected by incarceration.

In fact, it is estimated that one in every three African-American boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. The same is also true for one in every six Latino.


According to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 76.6% of all inmates who were released in 2005 were arrested again within five years. 67.8% of them were arrested within three years. The United States, in fact, has the highest rates of recidivism among all the developed countries in the world.

Various factors have been attributed to this. One is that our prisons are too focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Policymakers and prison administrators tend to forget that those inmates will eventually get out. Thus, no preparations have been made for their reentry into society. They tend to have no useful skills and the stigma surrounding ex-convicts seriously hurt their job-hunting efforts. Though some prisons have put in place several reentry programs in recent years, much remains to be done. (Related: What Happens After One’s Release From Prison?)


Did you know that our country spends around 80 million per year for the upkeep of prisoners? Yes, and they come from the people’s taxes. Rather than using it on more useful projects like roads and bridges, the government is spending that amount of money to keep its citizens from their families.


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Judy Ponio an author for GlobalTel


Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.