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The State of Prisons

States Take on Prison Reform

With the White House and Department of Justice following a “tough on crime” path, state leaders are now largely on their own in the effort to make prisons smaller, safer, and more successful at preparing incarcerated people for reentry into communities.

In the United States, more than 1.5 million people were in state and federal prisons at the end of 2016, the most recently available data.E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2016 (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2018), 1. This is down 7 percent from a peak prison population of more than 1.6 million in 2009, but it remains extremely high.Carson, “Prisoners in 2016” (2018), at 3. When individuals in jail are included, the number of people behind bars in the United States exceeds 2.1 million—more people than are incarcerated in any other country.World Prison Brief, “Highest to Lowest – Prison Population Total.” The rate of incarceration in the United States is also very high—almost eight times higher than the median rate of western European countries.Roy Walmsley, World Prison Population List—Eleventh Edition (London: World Prison Brief and Institute for Criminal Policy Research, 2016). The U.S. incarceration rate is 666 people per 100,000 U.S. residents; in comparison, the median incarceration rate of western European countries is 84 per 100,000. In addition, as of 2015, some 4.65 million Americans were under community supervision, such as probation or parole.David J. Harding, Jeffrey D. Morenoff, Anh P. Nguyen, and Shawn D. Bushway, “Short- and Long-term Effects of Imprisonment on Future Felony Convictions and Prison Admissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114, no. 42 (2017)Michelle S. Phelps, “Mass Probation and Inequality: Race, Class, and Gender Disparities in Supervision and Revocation” and “Locations of Disparity,” in Handbook on Punishment Decisions, edited by Jeffery T. Ulmer and Mindy S. Bradley (New York: Routledge, 2018); and Danielle Kaeble and Lauren Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), 1.

In 2017, progress was made toward reforms in some state prison systems—from studying and limiting the use of solitary confinement, to providing college education in prisons, to paying more attention to identifying and assisting specific or particularly vulnerable populations behind bars—such as women, people with disabilities, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT). In late 2017, Harvard Law School held a conference specifically highlighting the rights of vulnerable populations behind bars.Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics and Harvard Law School, “Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons,” November 29–December 1, 2017. For more statistics on solitary confinement and its repercussions, see U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011–12 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2015). For a discussion of some of the vulnerabilities of marginalized populations see BJS, Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-2012 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2013).

Enormous challenges remain, however, including severe overcrowding and understaffing in many prison systems, an aging prison population, and the considerable need for health care, mental health services, and substance use treatment among those who are incarcerated.

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