The Growth of America's Prison System
THE UNITED STATES has the world's largest prison system. At mid-year 2005, federal and state prisons in the United States housed more than 1.4 million inmates (Harrison and Beck, 2006). Given the long-term and recent trends in imprisonment in the United States, we can estimate that the U.S. prison population will surpass the 2 million inmate mark before 2010. Only a decade ago (1994), the U.S prison system had just managed to squeeze in its one-millionth inmate. In 1986, the system incarcerated 500,000 inmates, which was twice the number of inmates incarcerated in 1976. To make a long (three decade) story short, in the previous twenty-seven years, the population in U.S. prisons has doubled three times. This rate of growth in imprisonment is unprecedented in the modern history (from 1925 on) of the U.S. prison system. Below, these trends in imprisonment are explored in greater detail.
To get a better feel for these data, prison population growth for the United States is depicted in table 3.1 and figure 3.1. Take a moment to examine the table and graph, taking particular note of the trends you observe in the graph. What you will see may surprise you.
The story of the rapidly expanding U.S. prison population began in 1973. Shortly after 1973–1976 to be exact—there were 262,833 prison inmates incarcerated in American prisons, which was twice the number of inmates incarcerated in 1930. The fact that the number of inmates in American prisons had doubled between 1930 and 1976 is, in itself, rather unremarkable because by 1976 the U.S. population had increased by about 74 percent over its 1930 level. Still, while the population of