Behind Bars

Nearly 10.2 million people are currently behind bars in the world’s prisons. While that is just 0.14% of the world population, it is large enough to nearly equal the population of Bolivia, Portugal or the Czech Republic. We wonder: Which country has the highest number of prisoners?

A. United States
B. China
C. Russia
D. United Kingdom

A. United States is correct.

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but about 22% of its prison population. The United States not only has the highest number of people in jail, with 2.2 million prisoners, it also has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with 716 people in jail for every 100,000 people.

America’s incarceration rate wasn’t always this high. Between 1925 and 1975, the country’s incarceration rate was fairly stable, at about 110 prisoners per 100,000. If it had sustained that rate, the United States would have a prison population today of “just” 345,000.

The number of people incarcerated in U.S. federal prisons has increased nearly tenfold, to 219,000, since the 1980s. That is when the U.S. Congress — mainly in reaction to the crack cocaine epidemic — imposed stiff mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

In August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — citing overcrowded prisons, overly harsh sentences and spiraling costs of incarceration — proposed a set of reforms that would reduce the number of people in federal prisons.

However, since federal prisons house only about a tenth of all people jailed in the United States, it will take similar reforms at the state level to have a sizable effect on the overall prison population.

B. China is not correct.

With at least 1.6 million people in its prisons, China is a distant second to the United States in terms of its prison population. Given that China’s population is about four times larger, however, its incarceration rate is much lower than the U.S. rate.

As of mid-2012, based on numbers compiled by the International Center for Prison Studies from official Chinese sources, the country had 121 prisoners per 100,000 people. That rate, by the way, is not significantly higher than the rate that prevailed in the United States from the 1920s to the 1970s.

As of 2009, as many as 650,000 people were being held without trail in China’s administrative detention facilities, often for offenses such as drug use or prostitution. If this number is about the same today, China would have the world’s largest prison population, at 2.3 million. However, its incarceration rate — at about 170 per 100,000 — would still be less than a fourth of the U.S. rate.

C. Russia is not correct.

As of mid-2012, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, Russia had a total of 682,000 prisoners, the third-largest prison population in the world. At 475 prisoners per 100,000, it had the second-highest incarceration rate among the world’s large countries — about 35% below the U.S. rate.

With 548,000 people in jail, Brazil has the world’s fourth-largest prison population, followed by India, with 385,000. However, the incarceration rates of these countries are extremely different. Brazil currently imprisons 274 people for every 100,000 citizens, while India has only 30 prisoners for every 100,000 people.

D. United Kingdom is not correct.

The United Kingdom has about 94,000 prisoners — the highest prison population in the European Union. However, with 147 prisoners per 100,000 people, it has a far lower incarceration rate than fellow EU member Poland. Poland has the highest incarceration rate — 217 prisoners per 100,000 people — among Europe’s largest countries.

Germany and France, by comparison, imprison only 79 and 101 people per 100,000, respectively.

Even taking race into account, the United States still has a much higher incarceration rate than Europe’s largest countries. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the incarceration rate for U.S. whites was 380 per 100,000 in 2010. However, the rate was 966 per 100,000 for Latinos — and 2,207 per 100,000 for blacks.

According to The Economist, “a black man in America is 3.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in 1993 in South Africa, just before apartheid ended.”

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