Land of the Free and Home to 25% of the World’s Prison Population

There has recently been a furor Philadelphia because the NAACP tried to install this poster shown below on some billboards and was turned down. What’s the reality behind this issue?

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning 743 people per 10o,000 of its population. And this is a relatively recent phenomena as shown by this graph. It is interesting that from 1990 onward crime rates were falling….

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2009 — about 1% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Additionally, 4,933,667 adults at year-end 2009 were on probation or on parole.[2 In total, 7,225,800 adults were under correctional supervision  in 2009 — about 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population. In addition, there were 86,927 juveniles in juvenile detention in 2007.

So roughly the poster is right: the US has about 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, though to be fair some repressive regimes may understate their numbers. And what are the causes. Well firstly there is a huge multi-billion dollar prison industry that has a vested interest in high prisoner numbers. And there is a huge drugs problem that causes much of the incarceration and of course there is a massive racial issue in that African Americans are far more likely to be jailed for an identical offense than a white American, as are Hispanic Americans. And of course, jailing people is self perpetuating system: the more you jail, the more jail further criminalizes people and so on…And of course recent DNA evidence has shown that large numbers of prisoners were unfairly convicted but are not having their cases re-heard. In many cases they were appallingly represented legally when their cases were tried and the US Supreme Court is hearing a case on this issue I recall. Though I expect Clarence Thomas will have nothing to say on this case, as he has been silent for five years now I hear. I real add to the Court!

How does this compare internationally? You can see the full picture at


Highlights of the comparison

US 743

Russia 577

Iran 233

UK 141

China 120

Canada 117

France 96

Germany 88

Sweden 78



About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Conflict Statistics, Economic Conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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