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The Prison Issue

How America Became the Most Imprisoned Nation in the World

How the US became the most Imprisoned nation in the world.

The United States of America locks up more people than any other country on the planet. Over the past 50 years, an era of mass incarceration took shape as politicians raced to erect a sprawling detention system. Now, with nearly 2.2 million of its citizens behind bars—or 1 in 99 adults on any given day—America's grim labyrinth of federal and state prisons, local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and immigration detention centers represents an unprecedented effort to isolate criminals from society.


Stateville Correctional Center, in Illinois, 2002. Photo by Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos

Some nations may also be at fault for human rights violations in their prisons, but America's mass-incarceration syndrome is—like the country's attitude toward just about everything else—super-sized. If states were countries, Cuba—with 510 per 100,000 persons behind bars—would rank 37 in the world for the highest percentage of its population in prison. Rwanda, at 41, would fall just behind the state of New York.

"The United States accounts for five percent of the world's population," President Barack Obama remarked after visiting the overcrowded cells of the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, in July. "We account for twenty-five percent of the world's inmates."

Over the past few decades, the United States has built more jails and prisons than colleges; there are now more than 5,000 of them across the 50 states, to be precise. And as the Washington Post reported in January, there are more Americans shipping off to prison than to two- or four-year degree programs in some parts of the country. Mass incarceration is now a signature of Americana like cowboy westerns, reality television, and cheap romance novels.

Yet the story of how the United States got to this dystopian place—the Atlantic once called it "perhaps the greatest social crisis in modern American history"—is more than just a statistical one. This machine has been more than half a century in the making, the byproduct of fear, racism, and social upheaval. And cracks in the foundation of the prison-industrial complex are becoming more visible every day: With low crime rates and rising support for reform, elected officials and the American people are starting to wake up from their decades-long nightmare.


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After the crest of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, the United States sank into a deep economic stagnation. Cities verged on bankruptcy, modern ghettos expanded, and a tangible violent-crime wave broke out nationwide. Seemingly overnight, fear seeped into American homes. Nightly news reports were increasingly laced with ominous stories, encouraged by Hollywood magic that portrayed a new inner-city insanity and suburbanites terrified of the burgeoning rap culture.

In Americans' eyes, the chaos of crime was everywhere. And it had to be stopped at any cost.

Politicians answered the call to arms, waging two interconnected—and roundly bipartisan—battles: the War on Crime and the War on Drugs. Federal, state, and local governments began to spend more than a trillion dollars to combat what the majority saw as a crisis: the grungy outgrowth, in their minds, of the counterculture from the previous decade.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines, harsh drug laws, and public safety initiatives seeped into policy as both prisons and police forces soared in size. A heavy crackdown on "quality of life" crimes in minority-filled neighborhoods, or what's known as "broken windows" policing, would go on to sweep the nation, perhaps most notably in New York City. And the overt flexing of authority, even with a dash of institutionalized racism, was welcomed: This was an America that not only watched Cops regularly but applauded it.


Over the past few decades, the United States has built more jails and prisons than colleges.

Thus emerged a prerequisite for public office: being "tough" on crime. In 1988, George H. W. Bush arguably won the White House with a now infamous ad that accused his opponent, Michael Dukakis, of being soft on crime. The surprise star of the campaign was a black man named Willie Horton who, while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, got released from state prison on a weekend furlough program and raped and murdered a white woman. To dig his party out of the wilderness, Bill Clinton had to rebrand the Democratic Party as crime hawks. "We cannot take our country back until we take our neighborhoods back," he intoned on the 1992 campaign trail.

In 1994, Congress went so far as to explicitly encourage states to be tougher: Under a bill known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by then-President Clinton—whose administration would oversee the largest expansion of the prison population in American history—the more people a state threw behind bars, the more money it received. It was a race to the top, and 28 states, as well as Washington, DC, dived right in, passing tougher sentencing laws.

So the 5,000 jails and prisons America now has were a simple matter of supply and demand. And since 1970, the detained population in the United States has increased by 700 percent. This is why there's been such a boom in the more controversial practice of for-profit imprisonment. Incarceration—whether it's for natural-born citizens, immigrants, or anyone else behind bars in America—is recession-proof.


But in recent years, the cities that served as the epitome of everything that was dangerous and scary—like New York and Los Angeles—have become safer than ever. If anything, our time is defined more by terrorism or mass shootings than by street crime. Which begs the question: If crime nationwide is at an all-time low, why does America still have a monstrous prison system? And why is it spending all of this money on it?

The answers have launched a tidal shift in the nationwide consciousness toward mass incarceration. A poll last year found that 77 percent of Americans disagreed with mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders, while another poll conducted by the ACLU pegged American support for prison reform and reduction at 69 percent. Similar numbers are apparent for efforts to decriminalize marijuana—a substance that has landed millions of people in prison or jail over the years, more so than any other drug.

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That reevaluation of the past several decades' worth of imprisonment has also been felt on a cultural level. It's not hard to believe that a Willie Horton ad nowadays would be chastised as race baiting rather than a one-way ticket to the White House. Or that the country would rather watch The Wire or Orange Is the New Black—series that explore the more emotional complexities of criminal justice—than Cops.

For both parties in Washington, it is now orthodox to believe that what America created was an overwhelming, costly behemoth of a system. And it is quickly emerging as a requirement in the coming presidential election that candidates have some kind of stance on how to fix it. After all, even former President Clinton recently admitted that what his administration did was, well, bad.


"Most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend," Clinton told a NAACP convention this past July. "And that was overdone. We were wrong about that. That percentage of it, we were wrong about."

The setting of an NAACP convention for his mea culpa is telling, as the Clinton administration's policies did more to imprison communities of color than ever before. To this day, that racial divide is stark: According to the NAACP's statistics, one in six black men—those who are "missing" from our society, as the New York Times describes them—is locked up, a trend that, if it continues, will soon balloon to one in three. They and Hispanics constitute the majority of those behind bars (58 percent as of 2008), even as these groups represent just a quarter of the American population.

The current rate of incarceration for African American men is nearly six times as much as that of their white counterparts. In fact, of the 2.2 million people in the American correctional system, about a million are black—a total that is larger than the entire prison populations of England, Argentina, Canada, and six other countries combined.

If crime nationwide is at an all-time low, why does America still have a monstrous prison system? And why is it spending all of this money on it?

Figuring out how to deal with these consequences and downsize the prison system is now a national project. A day before Clinton spoke, President Obama said, "Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it." He visited El Reno later that week, and also granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders—the largest single act of presidential forgiveness since the 1960s.


In the meantime, the Obama administration has sought to clog the federal prison pipeline by deferring nonviolent offenders to alternative programs, while doing away with mandatory sentencing guidelines. Last September, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder declared that 2013 was the first year since 1980 in which the federal prison population decreased. And in 2014, that downtick continued: According to figures recently made available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nationwide prison population decreased by 1 percent last year, with 5,300 fewer people in federal facilities. Even state prisons shrank, with 10,100 fewer inmates than in the previous year.

Yet if Congress were to pass any sort of reform—which, unlike everything else, it actually seems hell-bent on doing—it would only affect federal prisons right away. And since the era of mass incarceration has set its foundation stateside—data from the Prison Policy Initiative makes clear that it's the state and local facilities that house up the bulk of those behind bars—the responsibility falls on municipalities that established their own ecosystems of criminal justice to inflict real damage on the numbers.

In order to pull this off, Dr. Joan Petersilia, a professor at Stanford Law School and a faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, argues that Washington, DC, must lead like it did more than 20 years ago. Just in the opposite direction.

"There is symbolism in closing federal prisons, and that symbolism is very important," she tells me. "But there is also a financial incentive that can exist. And could Washington use this to keep people out of jail? Yes."

In other words, it has to be financially alluring in the most self-consciously capitalist nation on the planet for states to put an end to the era of mass incarceration. So rather than forcing them to be tough on crime, Washington, DC, can encourage localities to provide alternatives to imprisonment by dangling federal funds as leverage. This has already been achieved on a small scale, Petersilia points out, with federal-state initiatives like giving Pell grants to outgoing inmates to reduce recidivism, and the Second Chance Act, which boosts states' reentry programs for those coming out of prison.

A system as large as this one, Petersilia admits, will not disappear overnight. It'll take time to unravel 50 years worth of law enforcement overkill, especially in a way that is both just and sensible to the general public.

"There have been movements in the past for reform, but something about this moment is unique," Petersilia said. "It's about government getting out of people's lives. It's about what criminal justice is doing for the rest of us."

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