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A Look at Incarceration

Video by Addie Haney

Timeline by Grace Elkus via Timeline JS. 

The incarceration rates in the United States are the highest in the world, despite only having the third-largest population. There were 1.57 million people in federal and state prison in 2012, according to the Department of Justice. That is more people than the nation’s 1.05 million high school teachers, 1,530,000 engineers and 815,000 construction workers.

This number has extreme effects on the nation in many aspects of society, one of the most important being America's economy. The average cost of housing an inmate is approximately $20,000 to $30,000 per year. To put this in perspective, California spends 2.5 times more money on housing and feeding its inmates than it does on educating its students, according to a 2008 Pew Center study.

Mass incarceration also disproportionately impacts U.S. racial minorities. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person, and non-white Latinos are almost three times more likely. According to a 2013 Al Jazeera article, 11 percent of black men aged 20-34 are behind bars.

Furthermore, incarceration hits ex-prisoners hard once they re-enter society. Ex-inmates are 50 percent less likely to be hired than those without a criminal record, and children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“The age of the individuals that are starting to exhibit those behaviors are getting younger and younger, which is disturbing because that means they’re going to get involved with the court system at a very early age, which is not really what we want,” said Cpl. Chad Laws of the Burlington Police Department and assistant coordinator of the Junior Police Academy.

This project aims to dig deeper into both the lives of prisoners as well as the prison system as a whole, including the prevalence of mental health issues among prisoners, rehabilitation programs in place for both youth and adult prisoners, the increasing number of for-profit private prisons and current opinions and statistics on the death penalty, which continues to be one of the most controversial parts of the criminal justice system. We want to ask the question: Why are incarceration rates in America so high, and what factors are playing a part in those numbers?

Summary by Grace Elkus.