Are US Prisons Overpopulated? 30 Mind Blowing Prison Statistics

Fact-checked

For many years, the United States has been among the leading countries in high imprisonment rates.

But, why are these prison statistics important?

A high imprisonment rate is a bad news. It’s correlated with prison overcrowding, which puts a major strain on state and federal budgets.

Yes, it’s you and the other taxpayers that pay for the millions of prison sentences, with no guarantee that the prisoners will be rehabilitated or won’t commit a crime again.

Is much of incarceration today truly about keeping dangerous people off the street?

Let’s see what the numbers have to say.

Fascinating Prison Facts

  • 20% of the world’s incarcerated population is imprisoned in the US
  • 2.27% of the US adult population cannot vote because of felony convictions
  • Drug-related offenses are the number one reason for incarceration, making up 46% of all imprisonments
  • 2,353 US prisoners escaped in 2018
  • 6.8% of the prison population in federal prison is female
  • 76.6% of released inmates return to prison on average
  • There are currently only 36 prisoners serving sentences for offenses related to National Security
  • In only one US state, the prison population is below 50% of its capacity

What Do US Prison Statistics Say?

(Prison Policy Initiative)

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank that advocates for criminal justice, 1 in every 5 people in the world is incarcerated.

#1 The prison population in the US is 639 per 100,000 people.

(World Population Review)

The US is number one on the list of the countries with the highest prison rate in the world.

World Population Review reports that the US’s prisoner rate is 639, or in other words, 639 out of 100,000 people in the United States are in federal or state prison or in the local jail. The Prison Policy Initiative says it’s 698 per 100,000 people (which is pretty close).

Here’s another way to look at it: The US makes up 5% of the world’s population but 20% of the world’s prison population is incarcerated in the US.

That’s despite the fact that the United States incarceration rate is currently at its lowest in the last 20 years.

Other countries with high imprisonment rates are El Salvador, followed by Turkmenistan, Thailand, Palau, and Rwanda.

#2 About 0.7% of the United States is currently imprisoned.

(Vera Institute of Justice)

In 2019, the US had about 2.1 million prisoners in total. 0.88% are adults and 1.07% are working-age adults. By mid-2020, only 1.8 million people were in state and federal prisons and local jails, amounting to a 14% drop, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. The COVID-19 pandemic is probably partly responsible for the decline.

Many prisoners were released due to the coronavirus pandemic and there was also a significant drop in prison admissions due to the temporary policies set in place.

The current total prison population is 1,249,300 people in comparison to 200,000 in 1972.

#3 2.27% of the US adult population cannot vote because of felony convictions.

(Sentencing Project)

How many prisoners are there in the US?

Based on their review of prison stats, the Sentencing Project reports that 5.17 million people in the US are not allowed to vote because they were convicted of a felony. That’s 2.27% of the total population that is eligible to vote or one out of 44 adults.

That number was higher by 15% in 2016, but the criminal justice advocates have successfully pressured lawmakers to introduce certain policies that give prisoners (current and former) more rights when it comes to voting.

#4 The federal government oversees only about 10% of the nearly 2 million people who are behind bars.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

There are a total of 110 federal prisons, 1,833 state prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 218 immigration detention facilities, 3,134 local jails, and 80 Indian County jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

#5 On average, 76.6% of the released inmates return to prison.

(Prison Legal News)

In other words, prison statistics show that more than half of the prison population is likely to commit a crime again.

One study showed the return rate for state prisoners was 83%, 39.8% for non-violent offenders, and about 64% for violent federal prisoners over a period of eight to nine years.

Prison Stats on a State/Country Level

#6 Louisiana has 680 prisoners per 100,000 people, which is the highest imprisonment rate in the US.

(Statista)

That’s right! According to U.S. Justice Department estimates, Louisiana has 680 prisoners per 100,000 people, which is the highest rate in the US.

And yes, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was much higher two years ago like the overall imprisonment rates in the US.

Other states with the highest imprisonment rates include Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Arizona.

Now that we know the states with the most prisoners, which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world?

After the US, China has the most prisoners per capita, based on numbers from Statista.

#7 Massachusets has the lowest imprisonment rate in the US with 133 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.

(Statista)

Only 0.81% of the state’s population is incarcerated, with 133 prisoners per 100,000. In the last several years, the state has seen its imprisonment rate drop gradually.

#8 Texas has a prison population of 154,479 prisoners, the highest in the US.

(Statista)

Texas has around 154,479 prisoners, followed by California which counts 122,417, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. It’s also the second-largest state in the US.

#9 Vermont has the lowest prison population with only 1,608 prisoners.

The number of prisoners in the US state of Vermont is only 1,608, according to Statista.
Prison Policy reports that around 9,000 people are booked into local jails in the state. Despite having the lowest number of prisoners, the state has recorded a significant jump in incarceration rates in the last 40 years, reaching its peak around 2007.

Reasons for Incarceration, Demographics, and Prisoners with a Mental Illness

#10 Drug-related offenses make up 46% of the prison population.

(Federal Bureau of Prisons)

They’re the number one reason for incarceration in the US!

The Federal Bureau of Prisons says that up to 46.3% of the prison population is incarcerated for offenses related to drugs. Criminal justice advocates argue that the US’s war on drugs is the reason behind the nation’s issues with mass incarceration.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report highlighted that of the 46% sentenced federal prisoners who were serving time for drug offenses, 99% were incarcerated for drug trafficking.

#11 There are only 36 prisoners serving sentences for offenses related to National Security.

(Federal Bureau of Prisons)

That number is so low, it doesn’t even hit the first decimal number in terms of percentage.
In fact, the graph on the bureau’s website of US prison stats shows 0.0% of prisoners are in for national security offenses.

#12 The percentage of inmates held for a felony jumped from 70% to 77% in 2020.

(Bureau of Justice Statistics)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2018 that 68% of all defendants charged with a felony were convicted. The highest conviction rates were for defendants charged with motor vehicle theft (74%). The lowest was for defendants charged with assault (45%).

If you are meeting new people, it wouldn’t hurt to use background check sites, because you never know what somebody is not telling you.

#13 57% of the federal prison population is white.

(Federal Bureau of Prisons)

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there are 87,506 inmates in federal prison as of April 2021. They make up 57.6% of the population there. The count for Black prisoners is 58,515, accounting for 38.5% of the prison population in federal facilities.

That’s just in federal prison. Black inmates have long outnumbered other ethnic groups and still do.

#14 The US incarceration rate among Black Americans has decreased by 29% between 2009 and 2019.

(Bureau of Justice Statistics)

The latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics says that at the end of 2019 there were 1,096 Black prisoners for every 100,000 Black adults and 525 Hispanic prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic residents.

The Black incarceration rate at the end of 2019 was more than five times higher than that of white adults (263 per 100,000 white adults) and almost twice the rate of Hispanic adults (757 per 100,000 Hispanic adults).

#15 1,200 inmates died in local jails in the US in 2018.

(Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Mortality in local jails reached a peak in 2018, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The agency says this is the highest number they have recorded since they began collecting data in 2000.

Suicide is the single leading cause of death in local jails, while nearly half of all deaths were due to illnesses.

#16 6.8% of the prison population in federal prison is female.

(Bureau of Prisons; Statista)

Male prisoners account for 93.2% of the population in federal prisons, counting 141,974 as of April 2021. In comparison, there are only 10,349 female inmates in federal prison.

In total, there were about 107,955 female prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities in 2019 and 1,322,850 male inmates, Statista reports.

#17 35% of inmates in state and federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness between 2011 and 2012.

(Treatment Advocacy Center)

Another research published in 2014 from the Treatment Advocacy Center found 20% of the inmates in jails and 15% of the inmates in state prisons suffer from a mental illness.

Are Prisons Overcrowded?

The short answer is: Yes. In most places around the world, including the US, local and state prisons are overpopulated.

With policymakers introducing rules to drastically minimize the prison population due to the pandemic, criminal justice advocates hope that this situation will change.

18# The Bureau of Prisons and nine state prison systems were operated at 100% capacity or more.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

These prisons held more inmates than they were designed to, both before and during the coronavirus pandemic.

#19 Prisons in 41 states are currently operating at 75% of their capacity or more.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

While most states do not use 100% of their prisons’ space, criminal advocacy groups say this is not enough to ensure social distancing and other recommended measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. They highlight that these facilities were not created with a pandemic in mind and are still considered overcrowded prisons in the current situation.

#20 In only one state in the US, the prison population is below 50% of its capacity.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

And it’s Maine! That operating capacity percentage is based on the lowest reported capacity. Its current operating capacity based on the highest reported capacity is 73%. According to the most recent data, there are 1,722 prisoners.

#21 The prison system in Montana operates at 121% of its capacity.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

This is the highest recorded number in the entire US, according to Prison Policy, and is based on the highest reported capacity.

#22 People go to jail 10.6 million times every year (jail churn).

(Prison Policy Initiative)

Jails are different from prisons, where people serve long sentences. In jails, most inmates pay bail or remain there until their court trial.

Jail churn, which counts the number of times people are booked to jail, does not include the number of unique individuals that go to jail. Prison Policy estimated that around 4.9 million people are arrested and go to jail annually on an average, and around 1 in 4 of those goes to jail more than once a year.

#23 Between March and June 2020, around 208,500 prisoners were released early in response to the pandemic.

(Bureau of Justice Statistics)

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many states in the US moved to introduce and approve temporary policies to decrease prison and jail populations due to the increased risk of virus transmission in the face of the pandemic. States usually opted to give expedited release to inmates with non-violent offenses and those whose sentences expire in less than a year.

In case you’re going on dates, think about using background checks to verify your date, just to be sure who the person is.

#24 The Federal Bureau of Prisons sent more than 24,000 people to home confinement during the pandemic.

(Prison Policy Initiative; CNN)

Their release was part of the CARES Act that Congress passed, which authorized federal prisons to give some prisoners the option of home confinement if they were convicted of certain non-violent crimes or were elderly.

Among the famous prisoners that were released due to the pandemic was Michael Avenatti, known for being Stormy Daniel’s lawyer.

Maximum/Minimum Security Prisons, Escapees, and Death Row

#25 The Bedford County Jail had one prisoner escape a total of six times over the years.

(Miami Herald)

A prisoner named Phillip Andrew Marshall escaped six times from the Bedford County Jail in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

#26 The number of prison escapees in the US in 2018 was 2,353.

(Statista)

This number was reported in 2020 by Statista. The graph shows that the number of prison escapees has been gradually declining over the years. In 2000, for example, there were 5,168 prison escapees.

#27 There are 711 inmates on death row in California.

(Death Penalty Information Center)

This number is the highest of all states across the US, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In California, most death row inmates are held in San Quentin State Prison, another facility that is frequently labeled as the most secure prison in the world.

#28 8 offenders are scheduled to be executed in 2021.

(Death Penalty Information Center)

The Death Penalty Information Center says there are a total of 8 people on death row that are expected to be executed this year. In 2021, three inmates were executed in the US in total, all by lethal injection.

Capital punishment has been a controversial topic and many states have abolished it. As of 2020, the death penalty is still legal in 25 states in the US.

#29 Nobody has escaped from the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) prison.

(San Francisco Gate)

ADX, which is located near Denver, has a reputation for being “escape-proof” and is among the worst prisons in the US.

The San Francisco Gate once reported that the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies” is designed to keep inmates in near-total confinement and houses the world’s most dangerous criminals.

#30 There are seven federal minimum security prisons in the US.

(Prisoner Resource)

They’re the best prisons to serve time in.

Have you seen all those lists on the internet of “the most comfortable prisons in the world”? Those are minimum-security facilities, also known as federal prison camps. Prisoners don’t stay there longer than 10 years, there aren’t many guards, and they have some perks that other prisons do not (like a TV).

The federal US Bureau of Prisons lists the following as minimum-security facilities in the US:

  • FPC Alderson
  • FPC Bryan
  • FPC Duluth
  • FPC Montgomery
  • FCI Morgantown
  • FPC Pensacola
  • FPC Yankton

Conclusion

Prisons in many countries around the world are overpopulated, and this applies to the United States as well. Many correctional facilities have exceeded their maximum capacity rate in the past, but due to the pandemic and the measures that were passed to hinder the spread of the virus, it appears that the number of inmates has been reduced.

If you ask criminal justice advocates, they will argue that state and local governments aren’t doing enough. But, the prison statistics suggest they’re off to a promising start.

ABOUT AUTHOR

I've been a tech-addict all my life. I still remember the sound of a successful dial-up connection. I started my writing career at a very young age for a gamers' magazine. I'm fascinated by each new technology, as a kid with a long-anticipated Christmas gift. My hunger for knowledge and child-like fascination with everything with wires or codes helps me cover a wide array of articles here, on Review42.com. Whenever I'm not staring at a display I enjoy exploring new places.

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