us prisons california jails
Inside Story America

Why are so many Americans in prison?

We ask if the US should reconsider its ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ approach to crime and punishment.

The US has the highest prison population in the world – some of whom have been subjected to lengthy sentences for relatively minor crimes. And that population has surged over the past three decades.

Prison has become the modern-day slavery. There is a whole cast of people in this country who have been convicted of crime and have what I call the mark of the beast. Once you have that conviction all your life’s chances are reduced.

– Larry White, a community advocate for Fortune Society

Although there has been a slight reduction in the past year, more than two million people are either incarcerated in prison or in jail awaiting trial.

The US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, with 743 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans. No other nation even comes close to these figures.

One explanation for the boom in the prison population is the mandatory sentencing imposed for drug offences and the “tough on crime” attitude that has prevailed since the 1980s.

But it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes US prison policy. Some prisoners are locked up for life – literally – and many receive harsh sentences for non-violent crime.

These long sentences are leading to an ageing prison population – with eight per cent of prisoners now over the age of 55. This, in turn, is increasing the burden of providing healthcare and geriatric services.

National data shows that people use drugs at roughly the same rate for different ethnicities and races, and yet the number of African-Americans and Latinos who end up in prison on drug charges are much higher. It is clear that the way we have treated drugs and criminalised addiction really has impacted some communities more than others.

– Tracey Velazquez, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute

Furthermore, nearly 40 per cent of the US prison population is African-American, despite the fact that blacks make up only 12 per cent of the national population.

A black male is seven times more likely to be imprisoned than a white male.

Mental health issues and drug addiction are also common and, in California alone, it is believed that around 50 per cent of inmates need mental health treatment. 

So why does the US have the highest rate of documented incarceration in the world? And does its approach to crime and punishment work or would a focus on rehabilitation be more effective?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Anand Naidoo, discusses with guests: Lary White, a former convict and a community advocate for Fortune Society, a group that promotes alternatives to incarceration; Tracey Velazquez, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute; and Charlie Sullivan from Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE.

“There is an old saying among the prisoners in Texas that you’re guilty until proven rich, and that’s true. Many people of colour will end up with a court-appointed attorney, and so you’re able to, in a sense, buy your way out of the system if you are in the majority, and that is being a white person.”

– Charlie Sullivan, the co-director of CURE