The number of people in US prisons and jails rose again last year to
2,267,787 people, continuing a trend of increasing incarceration rates that
has gone on unabated for more than two decades. According to a report released
in October by the US Department of Justice, by the end of 2004 there were 1.4
million prisoners in federal and state facilities and 700,000 in local jails.
One out every 109 US males was incarcerated in a state or federal prison in
2004, reflecting a 32 percent increase in the number of male prisoners since
1995. In 1980 the number in prison or jail in the US totaled 503,000. By 1990
this had doubled to over a million and by mid-year 2002 it doubled again, to
surpass the 2 million mark.
The historical increase in the US prison population has been out of proportion
to the general rise in population. In 2004 the US incarceration rate hit 486
sentenced inmates (those with sentences exceeding one year) per 100,000 residents,
up 18 percent from 411 per 100,000 a decade ago, according to the government
Though US crime rates have actually fallen in recent years, a law-and-order
atmosphere and more jail time and longer sentences under mandatory minimums
and three-strikes laws are keeping the prisons filled. The prison system is
a key component of political repression, designed to keep a lid on growing social
tensions resulting from unprecedented levels of social inequality in the US.
The US has the highest prison population in the world, both in percentage of
its population and in sheer numbers of people kept behind bars. Only China,
with a population more than four times that of the US, even comes close, with
1.5 million prisoners. The overall US incarceration rate—724 per 100,000—is
25 percent higher than that of any other nation in the world, according to the
Sentencing Project, a prisoner advocacy group.
Women and immigrants have highest increases
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report noted that the number of female
prisoners rose 4 percent from 2003 to 2004, more than twice the rate of increase
among men over the same time period. The annual rate of increase in women has
averaged 4.8 percent for the past decade compared to an average of 3.1 percent
for men. Harsher drug sentencing laws are a big part of the increase. Women
now account for one in four arrests in the US, though they currently comprise
only 7 percent of prison inmates. This is up from 5.7 percent in 1990.
The highest historical increase in incarceration rates has been in the area
of immigration offenses, which has risen by 394 percent since 1995. In 2003
there were 16,903 people in prison for immigration offenses, up from 3,420 in
The number of persons jailed in federal prison for immigration offenses (such
as attempting to enter the country within five years of being deported) doubled
from 1,593 in 1985 to 3,420 in 1995. After the Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigrant Responsibility Act was implemented in 1996 the number skyrocketed
to 16,903 in 2003. Immigration lawyers have documented that 57 percent of immigration
violations cases referred for prosecution by the Immigration and Naturalization
Service in the year 2000 involved citizens of Mexico, with nearly all of these
cases being investigations of unlawful entry.
Sentenced inmates in federal prisons increased from 88,658 in 1995 to 158,426
in 2003, according to the BJS report. The largest increase was for drug offenses,
just under half of the total growth. Those sentenced for drug offenses made
up 55 percent of federal inmates in 2003. Public-order offenses, including weapons
charges and the above mentioned immigration violations, made up nearly 40 percent.
The federal prison system has been the sole source of the growth of privately
operated prisons in the past four years, according to the BJS report. Close
to 25,000 federal prisoners were housed in private facilities in 2004 compared
to 15,500 in 2000. The use of private prisons in the states and US territories
declined over the same period. Nevertheless, states and territories held over
74,000 people in private jails.
Juveniles in adult prison
There are just over 100,000 prisoners in juvenile facilities. When juvenile
justice statistics are examined in detail, the repressive conditions in US society
are dramatically on display.
Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders are too
young and immature to be put to death. These rulings rested on the concept that
children do not have the same mental capacity and thus are not as culpable as
adults. But this has done little to stop the systematic dismantling of the 100-year-old
juvenile justice system.
Though the number of youth convicted of murder was cut in half between 1990
and 2000, the rate of children sentenced as adults went up substantially. In
1990 there were 2,234 youth convicted of murder in the United States, 2.9 percent
sentenced to life without parole. Ten years later, in 2000, the number of youth
murderers had dropped to 1,006, but 9.1 percent were sentenced to life without
More than one in four of the youth convicted of murder—the majority of
cases remanded to adult court—were convicted of felony murder in which
the teen participated in a robbery or burglary during which a co-participant
committed murder, without the knowledge or intent of the teen.
In any event, experts have pointed out that the increase in the number of children
sentenced as adults comes from cases that would not have been subject to the
death penalty. They are young people who were accessories to crimes or who were
sentenced to life (without parole) for property crimes and other nonviolent
In a recent world survey of juvenile offenders, Human Rights Watch/Amnesty
International found only four countries that imprisoned children with sentences
of life without parole. Out of 154 countries outside the US, the authors of
The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United
States found only 12 prisoners in just three countries who were serving sentences
of life without parole for crimes committed while they were children. In the
US, the fourth country, there were 2,200 people serving life without parole
for crimes they committed before turning 18.
The US, along with only Somalia, has never ratified the Convention on the Rights
of the Child. It stands in violation of the international human rights standards
contained in that charter that prohibit the incarceration of children with adults.
According to the report, one third of the youth offenders now serving life without
parole in the US entered adult prison while they were still children.
“In eleven out of the seventeen years between 1985 and 2001, youth convicted
of murder in the United States were more likely to enter prison with a life
without parole sentence than adult murder offenders,” the report says.
A few US states led the increase in harsh adult sentences for children. Virginia,
Louisiana and Michigan had life without parole sentences for children rates
that were three to seven-and-a-half times higher than the national average of
1.77 per 100,000 children.
According to the BJS, the states with the highest incarceration rates are found
in the South. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is 816 prisoners per 100,000
state residents, approaching twice the national average and substantially higher
than even its closest rival, Texas, which reported 694 per 100,000.
When Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco announced her shoot-to-kill
orders for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina she was only crafting the
logical extension of decades of increased police repression in the US that has
accompanied the corporate and government assault on social conditions.
The response of the media was to largely ignore the semi-annual report from
the BJS and the social implications of decades of increases in the imprisonment
rates. Bringing up social ills in the US is rare, and discussing them in relation
to crime and punishment is virtually taboo. There was only a brief outburst
of protest a month ago when William Bennett, the former US Education Secretary
and right-wing commentator, made his now infamous assertion that crime in the
US would fall if all black babies were aborted.
Stagnant and falling wages and incomes for the poor, growing household indebtedness,
cuts in social services and countless blows to the social safety net are a feature
of everyday life in the US. Following the virtual elimination of any form of
public assistance for the long-term unemployed and the dismantling of mental
health facilities in the states, states have treated prisons as a dumping ground
for the individuals ground down by society, a practice acceptable in official
The Human Rights Watch/Amnesty International report found marked racial disparities
among juveniles sentenced to life without parole. Nationwide, the estimated
rate at which black youth receive life without parole sentences (6.6 per 10,000)
is 10 times greater than the rate for white youth (0.6 per 10,000).
The BJS report finds the same racial disparities in adult prisons. In 2004
more than 40 percent of sentenced inmates were black. Of black males aged 25
to 29, 8.4 percent are sentenced inmates, compared to 2.5 percent of Hispanic
males and 1.2 percent of white males in that age group. Even among middle-aged
blacks, aged 45 to 54, the rate of incarceration is higher than the national
average, at 3.3 percent.
Bennett, as “drug czar” under the first President Bush, was responsible
for the direction of US policy in the area of drug offenses. The so-called war
on drugs eschewed rehabilitation and caught up hundreds of thousands of black
men in its net, even though drug use itself is no higher among racial minorities
than among the population as a whole.