American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

File:Prison cell block.jpg

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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