The Numbers: Who’s in American Prisons, and for What Crimes?

The Numbers: Who’s in American Prisons, and for What Crimes?

American prisons are currently experiencing a shortage of space and an abundance of prisoners; in a word, overcrowding.  The United States incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite accounting for only 5 percent of the world’s population.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons alone is experiencing overcrowding at a rate of 40 percent in its facilities, with projections indicating this rate will continue to increase.  With this overcrowding, prisoner unrest, violence, and misconduct increase.  The system is broken, and the phrases “Prison Nation” and “Incarceration Nation” continue to become more apt every year.  Something must be done, but first, the extent of the problem must be understood.  Triage is required.

While much of this overcrowding is due to our country’s policies concerning crime control (i.e., incarceration as a solution of the first resort), a significant cause of this problem is due to recidivism — the instance of prisoners or probationers returning to criminal activities and being sanctioned for doing so.  While many understand and agree that the initial instance of crime can be reduced through stronger social and educational programs for children, we find ourselves faced with a problem of returns on our current efforts.  We must stem the blood flow of recidivism now so that the system can be patched up well enough for us to focus on future generations of children, some of whom are destined to turn to crime without reform to the services currently being provided to them.

And with this, I present the following statistics in the hopes that the extent of our broken criminal justice system problem can be realized, and solutions of the same magnitude can be envisioned:

The Current State of American Corrections

  • In 2009, the U.S. prisoner population totaled 1,617,417 inmates.
  • In 2010, there were 500 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents.
  • The South incarcerates the most prisoners, followed by the West, Midwest, and Northeast.
  • Black males are incarcerated at 6.7 times the rate of white males.
  • Black men and women are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than all other races.
  • Males are over 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than females.
  • Federal prisons are currently operating systemwide at 140 percent of capacity.
  • In 2010, 53 percent of released male prisoners recidivated.

Ages of Prisoners

  • In 2010, 664,900 prisoners were between the ages of 18 and 35.
  • In 2010, 233,000 prisoners were over the age of 50.
  • Between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of prisoners aged 65 and older increased by 63 percent.
  • Between 1995 and 2010, inmates aged 55 or older increased by 282 percent.

Recidivism Rates in Massachusetts

  • In 1992, the recidivism rate was 22 percent.
  • In 2004, the recidivism rate was 40.1 percent.
  • In 2010, the recidivism rate was 43 percent.

10 Largest Prison Systems

  • Texas: 173,649 prisoners
  • California: 165,062 prisoner
  • Florida: 104,306 prisoners
  • New York: 56,656 prisoners
  • Georgia: 56,432 prisoners
  • Ohio: 51,712 prisoners
  • Pennsylvania: 51,264 prisoners
  • Illinois: 48,418 prisoner
  • Michigan: 44,113 prisoners
  • Arizona: 40,130 prisoners

The Current State of the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Total Federal Prison Population

  • 218,952 total federal prison inmates

Gender of Federal Prisoners

  • 93.3 percent of federal prisoners are male.
  • 6.7 percent of federal prisoners are female.

Race of Federal Prisoners

  • White: 130,346 or 59.5 percent
  • Black: 81,196 or 37.1 percent
  • Native American: 3,988 or 1.8 percent
  • Asian: 3,422 or 1.6 percent

Ethnicity of Federal Prisoners

  • Hispanic: 76,488 or 34.9 percent

Average Federal Prison Inmate Age

  • 39 years old

Security Level

  • 11.2 percent are housed in high-security federal prisons
  • 28.6 percent are housed in medium-security federal prisons
  • 39.3 percent are housed in low-security federal prisons
  • 17.1 percent are housed in minimum-security federal prisons

Citizenship of Federal Inmates

  • United States: 162,013 or 74.0 percent
  • Mexico: 39,398 or 18.0 percent
  • Dominican Republic: 2,259 or 1.0 percent
  • Columbia: 2,235 or 1.0 percent
  • Cuba: 1,528 or 0.7 percent
  • Other/Unknown: 11,519 or 5.3 percent

Sentence Imposed

  • Less than 1 year: 5,136 or 2.5 percent
  • 1 to 3 years: 24,356 or 11.9 percent
  • 3 to 5 years: 29,171 or 14.2 percent
  • 5 to 10 years: 59,109 or 28.8 percent
  • 10 to 15 years: 41,557 or 20.3 percent
  • 15 to 20 years: 19,109 or 9.3 percent
  • Greater than 20 years: 41,557 or 9.9 percent
  • Life: 19,109 or 3.0 percent
  • Death: 57 or 0.0 percent

Type of Offense

  • Drug Offense: 89,669 or 46.8 percent
  • Weapons, Explosives, and Arson: 31,284 or 16.3 percent
  • Immigration: 22,529 or 11.8 percent
  • Robbery: 7,913 or 4.1 percent
  • Burglary, Larceny, and Property Offenses: 7,839 or 4.1 percent
  • Extortion, Fraud, and Bribery: 11,091 or 5.8 percent
  • Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Kidnapping Offenses: 5,744 or 3.0 percent
  • Miscellaneous: 1,607 or 0.8 percent
  • Sex Offenses: 11,699 or 6.1 percent
  • Banking and Insurance, Counterfeiting, and Embezzlement: 821 or 0.4 percent
  • Courts or Corrections: 645 or 0.3 percent
  • Continuing Criminal Enterprise: 490 or 0.3 percent
  • National Security: 83 or 0.0 percent

The Educational State of America’s Prisoners

  • 41 percent of all U.S. inmates did not finish high school; 14 percent didn’t finish 8th grade.
  • Only 34 percent of U.S. prisoners have a high school diploma; 23 percent hold a GED.
  • Only 12 percent of U.S. prisoners have any postsecondary college experience.
  • Only 13 percent of U.S. inmates that dropped out of high school cited work as the reason.
  • In a survey, 24.3 percent of U.S. inmates without a high school diploma would enroll in postsecondary education if made available.
  • 16.5 percent of U.S. prisoners, with a GED, would enroll in postsecondary education if made available.
  • Juvenile inmates are 150 percent more likely to reenter prison if they fail to earn a high school diploma.
  • Juvenile inmates are 200 percent more likely to reenter prison than those who attended some amount of college.

While the above doesn’t illustrate the whole picture of America’s broken criminal justice system, it does present a stark view of the current corrections crisis.  The younger the person, the lower they are on the socioeconomic strata, the less educated they are, and the darker they are, the more likely they are to be involved in the American criminal justice system.  None of these factors, morally or ideologically, should make any difference in the eyes of a just system of justice.  Sadly, they seem to be the rules, not the exceptions.

We also see that incarceration rates, populations, and rates of recidivism are on the rise, too.  While not presented above, there is also a rise in the number of private prisons and privately owned probation agencies.  Clearly, America’s criminal justice system is so broken — and with a perception that there is no answer in sight — that most observers are actually betting on the system’s failure.  A sad statement to be sure.

It is now our job to acknowledge that our system of justice is broken and resolve ourselves to fix it.  Learn the facts, understand what drives the trends that make up the statistics, and find solutions.  That’s why prison reform is about locating problems and finding solutions to them.  Hopefully, this information will help you to do just that.


Crime in the United States, 2010, Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Dept. of Justice

Prisoners in 2010, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Justice


The above presents a snapshot of the current situation in America’s criminal justice system.  The information contained above was collected from a number of reports, many of which were conducted by government and institutional researchers.  At times, these government and institutional researchers were only able to collect information from a portion of the states, prison systems, or systems of corrections involved due to the systems’ varying willingness to disclose data and respond to surveys.  As such, the above research should be considered to be accurate, albeit not universally complete.