Thoughts and Facts on the U.S Mass Incarceration Crisis

I decided to do some spontaneous research on the incarceration crisis in the United States after reading about mental illness in the prison system while sitting at Starbucks (how cliché).  Below are some of my thoughts along with facts I picked up along the way from various sources.

If you have any questions about any of the sources I used please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me. The majority come from government sources and various news articles from credible sources, although credibility is simultaneously an individual and academic judgment.  I also found an excellent set of graphs, maps, and charts that illustrate the crisis through much needed visuals on

Mass incarceration in America, explained in 22 maps and charts – By German Lopez

I plan on expanding on the mental illness section of my post in the near future.

There are more jails than degree-granting colleges and universities. The majority of offenders currently in jail and out of jail are non-violent. Alabama allows the incarceration of debtors merely for failing to pay debts and fines owed to government. Other states also do. $80 billion is spent on the correctional system in the US, more than entire national budgets for what I would approximate to be a quarter of the world’s nations.

40% of the male prison population in the US is non-Hispanic African-American while they make up approximately 6.1% of the population when calculating for gender. This is all while statistics show a fall in crime over the past two decades. By age 23, 50% of African-American males and 38% of white males have been arrested at least once. In some rural counties, prisoner populations can account for 30%+ of the population.

In 16 southern states, the elderly prison population increased 150% between 1997 and 2007 and has generally increased since then as well. Most of these southern states spend around 10% of the corrections budget solely on housing and health-care for elderly prisoners; they cannot apply for Medicare or Medicaid. Overall, the average cost of incarceration for anyone, for a year, is $32,000 and in New York state that rises to $60,000 a year. New York City spends $168,000 a year per prisoner (Independent Budget Office).

Fees accumulated from before, during, and after incarceration have increased over the years. Courts are increasingly imposing costs on current inmates and released inmates simply to cover court expenses, jail expenses, expenses involved in the service of warrants, and police department expenses. This is a vicious cycle for inmates; the vast majority come from poverty or end up in poverty. And some wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

A 2010 study by the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that almost 70% of inmates released in 2005 were rearrested within three years of release. 77% were rearrested within five years. 50% had a parole violation that led to re-imprisonment within three years of release. Of those released under the age of 24 (at time of release), 85% were arrested again within five years. There is an apparent snowball effect when an increasing number of inmates were added to the prison system when not including imprisonment due to recidivism.

Another issue is that of the mentally ill. The percentage of inmates with mental illness has steadily increased since the 1990s, more than quadrupling between 1998 and 2008. Most inmates do not get close to enough mental health support from prison systems. According to Human Rights Watch, the increased use of solitary confinement only aggravates the issue. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals in the United States. This is the criminalization of mental illness itself.



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