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US Prisons Hold A Quarter of The World's Incarcerated People

Updated on October 25, 2017

The United States has prided itself since its inception of being the "Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave," but the recent trend in US incarceration rates shows something much, much different.

While the US is home to only about 5% of the world's population, it also holds 25% of the total number of incarcerated people globally. This is currently the highest percentage of people in prison throughout the world, surpassing countries such as Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and many others which many people view as heavily favoring imprisonment for petty offenses.

Since the 1980s, the number of federal prisoners has risen over 800%. As of June 2017, the actual number of prisoners in the US has skyrocketed to over 2.3 million people.

A Typical Prison in the US.
A Typical Prison in the US. | Source
Average cell in a 'Supermax' prison
Average cell in a 'Supermax' prison

Mandatory Prison Sentencing

Mandatory sentencing has played a huge role in this increase in prisoners. These policies, which ensure that a guilty party receives a set time in prison depending on the nature of the crime, was originally enacted to prevent corruption and leave less room for human error on the part of the sentencing judge.

However, it is obvious that the threat of guaranteed prison time has done little to deter criminals, and has only increased the prison population in this country. This is evidenced by the fact that, there are not less crimes being committed, only more citizens going to jail for their offenses.

Having a minimum sentence attached to a charge could mean that a party, if found guilty, would receive a jail sentence for crimes such as writing a bad check, evading arrest, providing fraudulent information, and countless other offenses.

What do you think of mandatory sentencing?

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US Prison vs. the European Union
US Prison vs. the European Union | Source
Prisons in the US are universally overcrowded and unable to accommodate the ever-growing number of inmates.
Prisons in the US are universally overcrowded and unable to accommodate the ever-growing number of inmates. | Source

The amount of people who are currently incarcerated equates to 751 prisoners or for every 100,000 people in the US. The amount changes to 1 out of every 100 people in the US in jail for those over the age of 18.

Legal analysts have pointed out that this dramatic increase could be due to the idea that judges, prosecutors, and politicians all want to appear to be "tough on crime." This means that often, the maximum sentence is given to offenders, and there are usually harsh penalties for even non-violent offenses. This policy of Incarceration over Rehabilitation leaves little room for change, and often when there cases which may require a bit of interpretation, the sentence is harsh and long-term, in accordance with the court's or governments' desire to not appear 'soft' towards criminals of any nature.

The US Drug War

Other analysts have argued that the US's tough anti-drug policies have had a huge negative influence on the incarceration rate. Since the aptly named 'war on drugs' started in the 1970s, America's prison rate has increased 700%.

Most countries within the European Union, as well as throughout Asia and in many other parts of the world have chosen to adopt a more rehabilitative stance on drug use. In the UK, for example, anyone caught with a small amount of an illegal substance may not receive any jail time; rather, at the discretion of the courts, they may be sent to a mandatory rehab program, which will help them manage and overcome their addiction, rather then simply throwing them in a cell. Compare this to the US, where several cities hold policies where a person may receive jail time for years for simply possessing paraphernalia, with no actual illegal substances present.

The war on drugs has had a shockingly disastrous effect on the number of incarcerated people in the US.
The war on drugs has had a shockingly disastrous effect on the number of incarcerated people in the US. | Source

The Effect on Minorities and the Poor

The war on drugs in particular has contributed to ever-increasing number of minorities in the prison system. While adult black males make up only 13% of the population, they comprise 40% of incarcerated males. Offenses for paraphernalia and non-lethal substances like marijuana often carry jail sentences just for possession. In underfunded societies and in predominantly African-American communities, police reports indicate that the drug culture is often more prevalent then in others. As the US actively attempts to incarcerate anyone with any affiliation to the drug culture, minorities and the poor often suffer the most, and are simply thrown in jail for any kind of drug-related offense.


Treatment vs. Incarceration

Those who are incarcerated for drug offenses often have the worst experiences in prison. If they are struggling with an addiction, there is often no medical or psychological treatment for coping without their substance of choice. These prisoners suffer from withdrawal symptoms, severe depression, and occasionally physical illness. They become accustomed to the prison system's structured style, but once they are released back into society, they are usually left with no ability to cope with the world again. Often, without proper treatment, these poor victims of the system revert back to whatever coping mechanisms they were using before they were convicted. Within time, they usually end up back inside of a prison, for the same offense as before.

Politicians, court officials and many others have argued that these repeat offenders 'deserve' to go back to prison, since they 'did not learn the first time.' However, the science and medical community has collectively attempted to change the perception of addiction in recent years. Studies from both fields have asserted that addiction is a sort of disease, and in order to cure addiction, the best method is through treatment and therapy - NOT simply being thrown in a cell with all manner of criminals. Without proper preparations, prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses often are left with no choice but to go back to their old lifestyle, and risk incarceration again.


There are many facts which may have contributed to the shocking rise in incarceration rates. Yet what remains clear above all else is the fact that something needs to change.

  • 1 out of every 100 adults in the US is in prison
  • The US has the highest percentage of incarcerated persons in the world.
  • Over 2.4 million Americans are in jail - but China, which has 4 times the population of the US, comes in a far-away second has only 1.6 million.

Whatever you believe the underlying cause to be, remember that simply putting someone out of site, and out of mind, does not mean an end to crime in the US.

Write to your local politicians, congressmen, prosecutors and court officials to try to bring about change, and help America return to being the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

More Info and How YOU Can Help

For more information and to learn how YOU can effect change, visit:

Or if you'd like to help end mandatory minimum sentencing in the US, please visit
Or visit Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) at:

Remember - Sometimes, a simple click of a button really can help change the world for the better.


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    • Doug Cutler profile image

      Doug Cutler 

      3 years ago from Temperance. Mich

      I do believe some should be let out. Those that are no harm to others.

      Flip side is: Too many bad people have been let out to too kill and harm others shortly after release.

    • KMSplumeau profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Thank you for reading. And I completely agree, the more I learn about the American prison system, the more shocked I am to hear about some of the human rights violations and high recidivism rates in this country. Thank you for your feedback, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article! =)

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 

      4 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Your hub doesn't surprise me. Drugs plays a big part of the prison system. Also, we need more jobs for people and more training for people like these in jail. These people are not going to get a college education, so lets make sure they have some job skills. Then they might not end up incarcerated. Great hub

    • KMSplumeau profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Sure, this sounds very interesting, I'll definitely look into that. Thank you.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      4 years ago


      I think that you would find it interesting to google gangs and the FBI report.


    • KMSplumeau profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      I agree to some extent, but I have seen documentaries where gang members in prison are forced into solitary confinement in an effort to separate them from the gang lifestyle, as there is often no other way to do so. Particularly in situations where the member may have revealed some information about the gang itself to authorities, these people are often seen as being in danger. So for their contribution, they are locked up in solitary for sometimes 23 hours a day. This can lead to severe mental problems, as has been documented by many psychologists. And once these people are released from prison, their lives are often in danger from the gangs they have left, even if their leaving wasn't completely voluntary. It's a very difficult situation getting people out of gangs, especially when they enter at a young age. You make very excellent points, and I really enjoyed reading this comment. Thank you for starting this discussion, and for your readership.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      4 years ago

      Out of all the countries the US has the most protections for people accused of crimes. So the people that went to prison did have legal representation.

      What you are missing in this hub is the impact of the gangs involved in the drug, and human trafficking. A large percentage of those people in jail and prison are gang members. And gang leaders in prison still run their gangs.

      I do agree that harsh sentences for Marijuana should be removed for the users. The war on drugs is a failure in several ways. The drug user is the customer of these drug gangs, and the people especially the non adults are getting involved in drugs in grade school. The other serious failure is that the drug cartels have little trouble getting their contraband into the US.

      How many people are in jail because they are gang members, and there are about two million gang members. The drug cartel protects their investment with murder and violence. They carry and use weapons. There is an FBI report about gangs on the Internet.

      I agree that jails and prisons need to be changed to deal with drug users. Their sentence should involve continuous drug rehabilitation. The jails and prisons themselves need to be improved and a new paradigm generated for a failed system. How is it possible that so many crimes can be committed inside of a prison?

      Allowing convicted gang members to continue to be gang members inside the prison needs to be changed. Not breaking gang members free from their gangs is one of the reasons why many prisonsers that get out of prison return to their criminal ways.

      Gangs contribute a significant amount of the crimes committed in this country. The war on gangs isn't doing any better than the war on drugs.


    • KMSplumeau profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Thank you for your feedback, very much appreciated

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      This a really interesting Hub, you raise some very valid issues and highlight key areas that are of concern. Enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing.


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