The Round House – Stateville Correctional Center – Joliet, Illinois


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.”

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Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 8:49 pm  Comments (12)  
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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I agree with you. Another more grim perspective is the reality that Jim Crow is alive and well in this country. A caste system has been built. Read Michelle Alexanders new book: The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness. Hard to deny the facts.

  2. Thanks for your comments and the book recommendation. I intend to take a look at it.

  3. What a great topic! Maybe we could set up a system where every calendar year, food supply is adjusted such that there will only be enough food for the top 50% of prisoners and let them sort it out on their own. 3 years and the prison population would be just 0.1% of the overall population!

    Bonus thought: We could film it and syndicate the broadcast as an Big Brother-type television series, too. I imagine that would likely generate serious revenue for our cash-strapped government. Prison TV.

  4. 1) The War on Drugs – this has militarized our nation’s formerly genial police departments and turned them against their fellow citizens. The sheer number of drug-related incarcerations, especially when compared to non-drug related ones, is probably staggering.

    2) The growing criminalization of American law – America’s law is growing increasingly complex and ever more infractions are becoming criminal, when they were formerly civil. Ever heard of how American prosecutors play the Mother Theresa game? They say show them a person and they can find a crime to charge them with.

    3) The growing partnerships between state and industry – many prisons are now privately operated, but are given a monopoly by the government. Talk about creating a powerful special interest to lobby on behalf of accelerating the above two trends and increasing the industry’s target market!

    4) Growing moral rot in modern society – this is possibly the most controversial, yet most basic and most fundamental, cause of four submitted. I am a Christian, and I emphatically believe that when you remove the love of Christ from society, you inevitably see the growing lawlessness of society. Spiritually, politically, economically, and physically, we are no longer a society that encourages personal responsibility, family unity, or loving service. We have many laws, but no justice. We have much welfare and aid, but no compassion. Similar to what Suzanne said (although we may disagree on cause and solution), we are creating a caste of have-nots with little opportunity, and they see the haves getting bailed out with no responsibility. In such a society, where is the incentive to follow every petty little law the haves impose on you?

    Would love some feedback on these thoughts. Good day to all of you!

    No King But God

  5. Thanks for your comments. I hope that I do not surprise you by agreeing with all 4 points that you make. I think you’ve got it exactly right.

    The problem is: What can be done in a real political sense to reverse these horrible trends that continue year after year? I believe that many agree what can and needs to be done, but there seems absolutely no political will to do it. Politically infighting seems to have stalemated efforts to improve the fabric of our country. It’s sickening.

  6. Mr. Funk,

    I will be honest and admit that I am slightly surprised, but pleasantly so. I look forward to engaging discussions with you!

    As for what can be done, in the humble opinion of this amateur, the only real solution is to reverse the political process! The more government gets involved, the more bitter and protracted the in-fighting becomes. So I humbly suggest getting government out of many of the areas in which it currently intrudes, and return the responsibility to those most affected.

    I realize that this is very controversial and will be rejected out of hand by many, but why not cut whole areas of regulation? Why not stop the bailout mentality, the nanny state mindset, the idea that government is our moral compass and must invade and coerce in all matters, whether they occur in the bedroom, workplace, church, marketplace, foreign lands, etc.?

    Most people seem to have the idea that if something seems broken, we need government to fix it. So my suggestion for political action would be to reduce the political sphere. Drastically cut government’s role in our lives and let natural consequences hold people accountable.

    It seems to me that two things would result. One, people would be forced to take greater responsibility for themselves. If there is no government safety net, I need to be more careful and work harder. I cannot afford to show disregard for the law and go to jail, so there would be less lawlessness (also, it would help that there would be fewer laws to break, and the ones that did exist would only be the really important ones, e.g., don’t murder, steal, or commit fraud). Two, people would be forced to show greater compassion on a personal level to help those in need. If government is no longer expected to care for those who cannot care for themselves, then I must step up and care for them. It saddens me that the religious right has abandoned its call to care for the poor. That God-given duty is now assumed by the government. If you call for an end to the welfare state, you must be willing to take up the slack and shower God’s love on those left behind. So if I am getting more daily lessons in compassion and Christian love (by both giving and receiving), I would be much less likely to kill, steal, or defraud.

    Any comments would be greatly appreciated. And thanks to you, Mr. Funk, for the thought-provoking post and reply.

    No King But God

    • Thanks again for your comments.

      I am of the opinion that society tends to receive the amount of government that it deserves. I particularly like Plato’s opinion of laws that men need:

      “Laws are partly formed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil.”

      Plato made that comment about 300-400 B.C., and I believe that it continues to stand the test of time. I particularly like the first phrase of the quote.

      People land in prison because they have done things to deserve being there. Less government does not solve the underlying problem as to why they are there. I suggest that until the political process remediates the substantive social inequities of the underlying communities from which prison populations derive, the prison trend will continue in the wrong direction.

      Until there is the political will to do something about the increasing social inequities in this country, the more fortunate will continue to take advantage of the less fortunate. Society cannot just keep building prisons to lock up a larger and larger class of people who not only feel dispossessed, but are dispossessed. Government created most of this mess, and it needs to stick around in full force to correct its mess.

      With a more just society and with a reasonably fair chance for everyone, government might be able to shrink over time. Now is not that time.

  7. I do have to challenge one assumption: that the phenomenon of crime is created by social inequality. Speaking as a current law enforcement officer who has worked in all four permutations of urban/rural wealthy/impoverished, my belief is that the much higher incarceration rates of the poor do not reflect worse behavior among the poor. There are two quite obvious reasons for higher rates: fewer resources available to the defense and bias throughout the justice system. But I see two far more subtle principles at work: a lack of coping skills among the poor (I associate them with a lack of education) and denser housing. Wealthier communities spend more time inside their homes, immune from law enforcement contact unless we are “invited” in via 911 calls. Neighbors are less likely to hear domestic violence, shooting, etc, from a neighboring mansion (and actually, I believe *less* likely to report it). Poorer communities spend much more time on the streets (no AC, no room, not as many stockpiled goods)and hence exposed to law enforcement contact and arrest. I know I’m not saying anything earth shaking, but I do think you can’t separate the rising “crime” rates from the rising population rates and hence, increased population density. By the way–I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this discussion, whether I agree or not with various details…

    • I, too, would not assert that crime itself is necessarily created strictly by social inqualities. However, I think we would both agree that it is exacerbated by it. Lack of education, the poor coping skills to which your refer, housing that is more dense and without nicer amenities — all of these reflect, to one degree or another, social inequality. When poverty gets worse, crime gets worse. I don’t believe that there is any dispute about that. There is a great political struggle, however, as to what to do about it.

      Thanks for you comments. They are greatly appreciated.

  8. One last thing for tonight. I think the only answer is to try to rebuild our communities, one neighborhood at a time. I don’t think any outside intervention at all, federal or NGO, is going to make a bit of difference as long as the change is being inflicted on the community with even the best of intent. Community leaders need to try to solve their particular problems in unique and creative ways that leverage the strength of their local population base and economy, utilizing outside help when necessary. There can’t be any one size fits all solution for a community any more than there can be one universal gardening technique. If a gardener ignores the local soil, climate, plants, and personnel issues, they will fail, regardless of funding or even effort. The best way to shrink the size of government is for our families and communities to live in such a way that government is neither a parent nor an enemy, but is simply irrelevant.

    Ex cathedra from my weary netbook.


  9. Mr. Funk,

    Thanks for your reply and I apologize for my lengthy absence from the discussion. Duty called.

    I must point this out – you are making a common logical error. Entity A caused this mess, therefore Entity A can clean it up. The moral responsibility is correct – government caused most of this mess and so they SHOULD clean it up. But where is the proof that they CAN clean it up? We have all of human history showing us that giving human government greater authority and resources to fix past government mistakes does not work.

    A recent example – the SEC failed badly at both preventing and later detecting Bernie Madoff, over the course of many years, even when a whistleblower gift-wrapped their case for them. Therefore, the common reaction was that the SEC just needs greater authority and resources to get it right next time. We never stop to think that maybe we should try something altogether different. Remember the definition of insanity?

    It is the same with law enforcement, the judicial system, and the prison system. If these are failing us, the solution is greater authority and resources must be devoted to them. We never seriously consider that we need reform OF the system, not simply reform WITHIN the system.

    The apostle Paul consistently said that the law does not save us, the law is only there to bring punishment to the evildoer. So I very much disagree with Plato, laws are not needed to inform us how to live on good terms with one another. That is what love is for. Thus, I wholeheartedly agree with Paul’s comment from May 26 (not the apostle Paul, obviously, but the law enforcement officer commenting on this post). No outside intervention, particularly government and manmade law, will change the problem under discussion here. We must rebuild our communities, one heart, one marriage, one family, and one neighborhood at a time.

    This is why I make the assertion that we must reduce the intrusion of government. Now is exactly the time when this is needed. If government caused this mess, what possible reason could there be that we would need more of it?

    No King But God

  10. Mr. Funk,

    Have missed our conversations. Hope everything is going well for you.

    Today I read the article linked to below and it reminded me of an assertion I had made on this post before: “The growing criminalization of American law – America’s law is growing increasingly complex and ever more infractions are becoming criminal, when they were formerly civil. Ever heard of how American prosecutors play the Mother Theresa game? They say show them a person and they can find a crime to charge them with.”

    Anyway, the article is “The Crime of Living: Government Run Amok” by Wendy McElroy, posted to the Freeman Online on October 19, 2010, available at .

    God bless you.

    No King But God

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