Many know that America has more individuals in prison, and more prisoners per capita, than anywhere else in the world, though the numbers are stark. As of the 2010 Census, there are 2.3 million prisoners and 707 per 100,000 residents (WP). But even more surprising, and troubling, might be the fact that we now have more prisons than colleges in the U.S. The sad reality is 1,800 state and federal correction facilities and 3,200 local and county jails, combine for slightly more than the approximately 4,600 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. (NCES). In many parts of the country, in fact, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses (particularly in the South).
Maybe this would be necessary if there had been a dramatic increase in the crime rate, but crime has been going steadily down for the past 40 years (Murder Rates; Overall Crime), at the same time the prison population has ballooned from 216,000 in 1974 to its current rate (DOJ). So what has changed? As I’ve written in previous posts, mandatory minimum sentences for even minor drug offenses (meted out predominantly to male youth of color) and the privatization of prisons in the 90s (meaning an increased demand for “clients”) both pushed the trend. Looking at the map here, we find the real commitment of our justice system today – to reinforce a society that serves the power elite and throws away the lives of far too many young men. Yet is it that surprising as the number of quality, well-paid jobs decline just as more young people consider higher education as a viable option?