An International Perspective of Imprisonment in the Early 21st Century: With Just Less Than 5 Percent of the World's Total Population, the United States Has 23 Percent of the World's Inmates. (Commentary)

Article excerpt

There are nearly 2 million men, women and children in federal and state prisons and local jails in the United States, a greater proportion than any other country in the world. If one includes those on some form of parole, this figure rises to 6.3 million; that is 3.1 percent of all U.S. residents, according to the United States Department of Justice. With just less than 5 percent of the world's total population, the United States has 23 percent of the world's inmates, according to a presentation at the United Nations Programme Network Institutes Technical Assistance Workshop last year. In the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Texas, more than 1 percent of the entire population is in prison or jail custody, according to statistics collated by the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) for its World Prison Brief Online.

These figures set the United States apart from the rest of the democratic world and are a constant source of wonder for academics, corrections professionals and public commentators in other countries. Why should it be necessary in the "land of the free" to deprive so many citizens of their liberty? Who are these 2 million men, women and children? What happens to them while they are in custody? What happens to them after they are released?

The world of corrections is generally self-contained, with practitioners rarely looking beyond their own borders for points of comparison or learning. One of the strengths of the American Correctional Association (ACA) is that from time to time, it encourages its members to take an international perspective. My first connection with ACA was when I was invited to address an international symposium at its 1985 annual congress in New York. Continuing that tradition of open inquiry, the current issue of Corrections Today focuses on the theme of international corrections. I am honored to be the theme coordinator.

After completing 25 years as a prison warden in Scotland and England, I became the founding director of ICPS at the University of London in 1997. In the course of my professional career, I have visited prisons and correctional facilities in more than 40 countries. ICPS is unique because it combines research on prison issues with a series of practical prison reform projects in cooperation with national prison administrations and international agencies, including the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Current research projects include an analysis of how to change organizational culture in the prison environment. Most of those who work in the center have a combination of academic interest and extended experience as corrections practitioners. …