Does the United States lead the world in prison population?

February 6, 2004

Dear Cecil:

What with the new war on terror and the ongoing war on drugs, I've heard a lot of people make the claim that the United States has incarcerated a higher proportion of its citizens than any other country in history. To me, this claim seems tenuous at best. What about countries such as China, the USSR, and Germany during the mid-20th century? Perhaps the jail population would be low, but with all of the secret detainments and labor camps, the actual total would be more befitting of the all-time title.

Your skepticism is well-placed. The U.S. certainly doesn't have the highest incarceration rate in world history, and depending on whose figures you believe may not even have the highest rate now. However, to be honest, we're more competitive than you might care to hear.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, the U.S. currently has the largest documented prison population in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms. We've got roughly 2.03 million people behind bars, or 701 per 100,000 population. China has the second-largest number of prisoners (1.51 million, for a rate of 117 per 100,000), and Russia has the second-highest rate (606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000). Russia had the highest rate for years, but has released hundreds of thousands of prisoners since 1998; meanwhile the U.S. prison population has grown by even more. Rounding out the top ten, with rates from 554 to 437, are Belarus, Bermuda (UK), Kazakhstan, the Virgin Islands (U.S.), the Cayman Islands (UK), Turkmenistan, Belize, and Suriname, which you'll have to agree puts America in interesting company. South Africa, a longtime star performer on the list, has dropped to 15th place (402) since the dismantling of apartheid.

I'm not aware of any attempt to systematically compare imprisonment rates for all the world's sovereign states throughout history, and compiling such a list would be a daunting task. (Fax me those Sumerian jail records, would you?) But Stalin's Soviet Union, with its huge network of forced-labor camps, would surely be near the top. I've seen widely varying figures, but let's use the conservative Britannica number of five million prisoners in the Gulag in 1936. That works out to more than 3,000 per 100,000. The record holder, though, is undoubtedly Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge: the regime forced virtually the entire population into labor camps or prisons during the late 1970s, killing as many as two million of the country's six to seven million people.

Nazi Germany employed millions of slave laborers, but most were foreign nationals during wartime, so the comparison doesn't seem apt. China, though . . . well, 1.5 million prisoners is just the official figure. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Even ten million prisoners would make for a rate of 793 per 100,000.

Another nation suspected to have a lot of prisoners is North Korea. The country isn't listed in ICPS statistics, but a recent NBC News investigation put the number of political prisoners alone at 200,000, or more than 900 per 100,000.

Great, you're thinking. The only countries that might put away more of their own people than we do are both notorious authoritarian states. No question: considering we're supposed to be the land of the free, we've got a huge number of folks locked up. Most countries, including almost all our industrialized peers, have imprisonment rates under 200. India, hardly an orderly utopia, has a rate of just 29. What gives? You can try to explain our prison boom by pointing to political gambits like mandatory sentencing laws and the war on drugs, but that's dodging the question: Is crime here really that much worse than everywhere else?

Not necessarily. A comparison with the UK (incarceration rate for England and Wales: 140) is instructive. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, rates for many types of serious crime are similar in the U.S. and UK, but between 1981 and 1996 they dropped here and rose there. Rates of burglary, assault, and car theft are now higher in Britain. Murder and rape are still vastly higher here, but the gap has narrowed. American law-and-order advocates will say: Of course! We put more of our bad guys in jail! Defenders of civil liberties, on the other hand, tend to see the get-tough approach as a way of putting the screws to minorities, whose chances of getting sent up the river--even for minor offenses like marijuana possession--are disproportionately high. Do more convicts = less crime? A knotty question, but luckily for me not the one you asked.

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