Locked Up

Prison Population Per 100,000 Inhabitants
Prison Population Per 100,000 Inhabitants

1 in every 100 adults in the United States is in prison, a far greater number than any other country in the world.

Why does the United States put so many people behind bars, at great hardship for families and great expense to taxpayers? Here is a look at the history of prisons in the United States and prisons today.

U.S. Prison Timeline:

First state penitentiary opened in Pennsylvania. The early prisons tried to make prisoners “penitent,” or sorry for their crimes

First prison using “hard labor” opened in New York. Around this time prisons focused on using work as punishment

Prisons redefined as “correctional” institutions; probation and parole were widely used

Prisoners’ Rights Movement resulted in cleaner prisons and better health care. Prisoners organized, staged riots and protested to demand better conditions

Rockefeller Drug Laws required prison time for some drug convictions, which resulted in a growing prison population

Politicians got “tough on crime.” The use of probation and parole decreased. More people were imprisoned for longer periods of time, which resulted in severe overcrowding.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentences for having even small amounts of certain drugs.

Since 1990
Even though crime rates have gone down since 1990, more people are being imprisoned. More people are being put in prison, prison terms are being lengthened and more kinds of crimes are bringing prison sentences. Now over 50 percent of people in federal prison are there for drug crimes, not for violent crimes.

Prison Fact Sheet:

Race Matters

• African Americans, who represent 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, make up 50 percent of all prisoners
• African American children are eight times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Hispanic children are three times more likely than white children

Prisons Cost Taxpayers a Lot

• It costs U.S. taxpayers an average of $24,000 a year to keep one person in prison
• From 1987 to 2007 the amount of money states spent on prisons increased by 127 percent, compared to 21 percent for colleges and universities

Prison Affects Families

• More than 1.7 million children (2.3 percent of all children in the United States) have at least one parent in prison
• 53 percent of prisoners in U.S. have at least one child under the age of 18

Statistics from: The Pew Center on the States, U.S. Senator Jim Webb, U.S. Department of Justice

Click here: TO READ LETTERS FROM KIDS about their family members who have been in prison

Click here: TO READ LETTERS FROM WOMEN PRISONERS at the Rikers Island Prison in New York City

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