It is comforting to reflect that the disproportion of things in the world seems to be only arithmetical. -Franz Kafka-
The total number of prisoners in the United States is staggering.
2,304,115 people were in prison in this country as of 12/31/2008 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s 753 people in prison for every 100,000 of our population – just an astounding number. That’s a lot of devastation for a lot of families. In fact, it represents a lot of devastation, period. What on earth has happened to produce such a societal disaster?
As incomprehensible as it may sound, the United States has almost as many prisoners as China and Russia combined, even though their combined population is almost 5 times larger than ours. It is difficult to make much detailed comparison, however, because of the difficulty of obtaining accurate information from two countries not known for their openness. Even allowing for a liberal comparative adjustment because of the lack of transparent statistics, the United States presents an alarming, anomalous case. Russia is the only large country that has a per person ratio anywhere near ours. Their ratio is 609 prisoners per 100,000 population.
Perhaps a comparison with our close ally, The United Kingdom, may offer a clue. Surprisingly, for a country with similar values and a broad diversity of population, we discover an even wider comparative divergence than from that of the Communist totalitarian countries. The UK at 4/30/2010 had 85,086 prisoners from an estimated population of 55 million, or 154 people in prison for every 100,000 of population. Alternatively, the densely populated country of Japan at 12/31/2008 had 80,523 prisoners from a population of 128 million, or a mere 63 people in prison for every 100,000 of population. It’s hard to do anything but speculate about what the huge disparities are between the United States and the rest of the world’s prisoner numbers.
In spite of the disproportionately large prisoner population of the United States, there is a common trend amongst all the countries. Prisoner populations have dramatically increased in all of the countries over the past 15 year period. In the 15-year period beginning in 1992 with the Clinton administration through 2007, the United States prison population increased by about 1 million people, or a whopping 77%. The UK’s percentage increase over the same period was 79%, Japan’s 85%, and China’s ~50%, with Russia trailing at a 21% increase. These are large percentage increases by any measure, and there surely are some sociological studies to explain some of this phenomenon, but I want to look at the issue in a different way. Instead of a hunt to find the best statistical studies, I want to race away from the empirical, and look to a more theoretical approach. Again, I would like to reprise Kafka, who had this to say,
In the fight between you and the world, back the world.
At least over the past 15 year period, it seems that Kafka has it dead right. Society has gotten the best of the individual. I don’t think that one could argue that the individual has become less noble or more savage in a mere 15 year period. Rather, the balance of power as between the two has shifted. From this perspective, one would have to conclude that something in the nature of the individual’s attitude toward his or her political obligation to the government has markedly changed. More people have found more reasons to disobey the government, and those reasons have had their consequences.
Currently, there does not seem to be any political will to do anything about the political trend. The maintenance of a prisoner costs about $ 25,000 annually. Quick arithmetic puts the United States cost at 57.5 billion dollars. Some estimate that the current annual cost is actually a higher amount, approaching as much as $ 70 billion. Of course, with rapid growth in prison populations, the government has not been able to keep up with prison building to accommodate more and more people. At 12/31/2008 the occupancy level (based on official capacity) at prisons in the United States ran at 110%.
The lack of political will to effectively address this issue, in spite of occasional rhetoric, is alarming. It is unreasonable to believe that there is any citizen in the United States who wants more and more American resources (tax dollars) to be committed to building more prisons to house more prisoners. I do not believe that this is a national goal. Yet the societal ills causing these problems are, essentially a political non-starter.
I would like to challenge the body politic to begin discussing the relationship between the individual and the society such that the trend lines might start going in the opposite direction. The cost, the pain, and the inevitability of continuing on this current, unsettling path is a fearful notion to contemplate. The sure and steady increase in the prison population is evidence of a society alarmingly out of kilter. The solution cannot continue to be more prisons. That is an insane course, and society cannot afford to continue to get it so wrong with its people.
Note: Most of the statistics above were taken from or derived from information published by the King’s College of London in their “World Prison Brief.”