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The US has the largest prison population in the world, as well as the largest prison population per capita. The incarceration rate in the US is six times higher than the EU average, while the sentence times are on average three times longer than in the EU.

These statistics came as a consequence of decades of policies and has increased the disparities between the United States and other economically developed countries. According to academic and activist Angela Davis, as mass incarceration has increased, the prison system has shifted from being about criminality towards economic factors.

US’s mass incarceration problem

In June 1971, President Nixon declared officially a “War on Drugs”, stating that drug abuse was the US’ “public enemy number one”. This followed a sharp increase in recreational drug use in the 1960s and marked a key moment in the development of the US Prison System.  Nixon increased the funding of drug-control agencies and proposed strict sentances for drug crimes.

The critical moment, however, came during Reagan’s second term, where a bi-partisan Congress approved the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law substantially increased the number of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences. It also penalized disproportionately drugs that were typically associated with the black community, such as crack cocaine, as compared to drugs that were typically associated with white communities such as powder cocaine. The act, for example, mandated a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole for the possession of 5 grams of crack, while the same sentence would only be applied for 500 grams of powdered cocaine.

As expected, following the approval of this Act, there was a sharp increase in drug offense imprisonment, as well as an increase in the racial disproportion of said arrestees. The number of incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses increased from approximately 50.000 in 1980, to 400.000 in 1997.

Comparison between systems

The European Prison rules are a set of legally non-binding standards drawn up by the Council of Europe. The members of the Council include all countries in continental Europe, except Belarus and Kosovo, and countries are expected to comply with its rules.

The main difference between the American Prison System and the largest European Prison Systems is their general goal. Germany’s Prison Act states, for example, that “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release”, while the American Prison System focuses on punishing inmates. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, the prison system has responded to escalating crime rates by enacting highly punitive policies and laws. This has led to great disparity in incarceration rates, the European average in 2018 was 103,2 prisoners per 100.000 people, whereas in the US this number reached 655 prisoners per 100.000 in 2019.

In Europe, prisoners keep their right to vote, are allowed to receive welfare benefits and in some instances get the chance to spend some time away from prison (not uncommon in the Netherlands for prisoners to go home for the weekends). Family visits in the US happen in guarded visiting rooms, the prisoners generally forfeit their right to vote and (in some states) are not allowed to serve as juries.

In the US, little consideration is given to minor offenders, with some States trialling teenagers as young as 16 as adults. In some European countries, those under 21 are trialed in youth courts as to consider developing morals and psychologically or if crimes are considered “typically juvenile”.

Figure 1: Aftermath of a prison riot in California in 2009

The Economics of the American Prison System

The total annual expenditure of the US government on prisons and jails amounts to $84.6 billion, and, after adjusting for inflation, has quadrupled since 1982. There are therefore people with significant economic interests in maintaining mass incarceration. CoreCivic, the US’ second largest private corrections company, is traded at the NYSE and is a component of the S&P600. From 1999 to 2010, CoreCivic spent on average $1.4 million per year on lobbying on a federal and state level. An August 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice asserts that privately operated federal facilities are less safe and more punitive than other federal prisons.

Recently, these companies have come under fire and are even facing lawsuits as allegations of forced and underpaid labor came to light. These reports allege that these companies are exploiting people who are in vulnerable situations to reap profits. The hourly pay for inmates working in the US can vary anywhere from $0.09 to $4.90, depending on the State, while four States do not pay inmates any form of salary. This only decreases their chances of success once they are released, as they have little to no savings, and oftentimes are ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps.

Former inmates also face significant difficulties when trying to reenter the job market, as they face unemployment rates approximately five times higher than the general US population. This employer discrimination also affects disproportionately people of color and women. Formerly incarcerated black women face hardships finding employment, as their unemployment rate is almost seven times higher, at 43,6%, than the unemployment rate of their general population peers. The racial disproportionality regarding the incarcerated population, as well as the disadvantages they face once out of the Prison System will perpetuates racial inequalities, affecting particularly minority communities.

Figure 2: Prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary working at a farm

The consequences of mass incarceration

The consequences of mass incarceration go far beyond the financial impact, they affect individuals and communities all over the US. A prison sentence oftentimes has the opposite effect of what it is intended to achieve. Instead of being rehabilitated and ready to integrate society, many former prisoners fall into a cycle of crime after their release, due to either being pulled into gang activity within the prison walls, or turning to illegal activities due to financial need. Mandatory sentencing has doomed the lives of people charged with low-level offenses, punishing them for the rest of their lives.

According to a research conducted by the Congressional Research Service, on average, over a five-year period, 76,6% of released inmates will return to prison.

The effect on communities is also extensive, affecting primarily minority communities as these are the ones with the highest incarceration rates, even though they have similar drug usage and drug trafficking rates as white communities. Residents of neighborhoods with high incarceration rates face a disproportionate level of stress, due to a combination of disrupted family and social networks, as well as increased rates of crime and infectious diseases such as HIV. Furthermore, studies have shown that this also takes a toll on mental health, as one study concluded that “The effect of neighborhood-level incarceration on mental health is similar for individuals with and without a history of incarceration.”.

Mass incarceration has had a negative impact on individuals and society, the policy choices of the last 50 years have helped perpetuate racial inequalities in minority communities. One possible way to overcome this issue, would be to transform the American Prison System from a punitive one, into a rehabilitative Prison System, as seen throughout the EU. The question that remains is, when will American lawmakers tackle this issue, ensuring the American Prison System becomes an efficient tool for rehabilitating felons, making them ready to integrate society.


Sources: American Civil Liberties Union, History Channel, Reuters, NPR, sentencingproject.org

Afonso Monteiro

Hugo Canau

Christian Weber

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