The Land of the UnFree: Mass Incarceration in the US

Below are 2013 statistics comparing the incarceration rates of nations worldwide. How many nations incarcerate more of its population (per 100,000) than the United States of America?


The US is the world leader in jailing it citizens, incarcerating more of its people than any other nation in the world. More than North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Israel. Anyone.

And we like to think we're the greatest nation on earth.

(Graph by Statista. Statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies.)

For more about mass incarceration in the US, particularly the jailing of our minority populations, you can check out this post of mine The New Jim Crow.

Of particular concern is how persons with felony convictions are systematically disenfranchised, removed from voting rolls. The racial aspect of this disenfranchisement was explored yesterday by Jamelle Bouie in his The American Prospect article "The Ex-Con Factor".

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10 thoughts on “The Land of the UnFree: Mass Incarceration in the US”

  1. An important part of the discussion is whether this massive social experiment, which took off in the 70's, has deterred crime. It doesn't necessarily justify it, but if it has, it at least suggests some social good associated with extremely strict sentencing and high incarceration rates. Criminology is full of theories about what has lead to our reduced crime rates over this period...but I think that lead is likely an important part of the story. Yes, lead.

  2. This surprises me. Actually, it stuns me. Who would have though Cuba would jail less? Read an article on (I believe) the St Paul Pioneer Press last week which speaks of Minnesota's reform of their corrections system. They are leading the cutting edge of prison reform.

  3. Yep - and don't forget capital punishment, the mimetic tribute the state pays to murderers (the US behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq in the league tables) - and so shamelessly fundamentally faith-based. As Christopher D. Marshall observes (in Beyond Retribution [2001]): "It has always been those whose faith is most traditional, whose exegesis is most literal, whose reliance on the Old Testament is most pronounced, and whose identification with the political status quo is most obvious who have been most punitive in their understanding of justice."

  4. This doesn't surprise me at all. In Iran if you steal something, they just cut your hands off...problem solved. In China, you would be caned for a minor offense. The US incarcerates, which seems to be less punitive. As far as voting, if you aren't willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in.

  5. Recidivism rates vary dramatically, but stricter punishments don't seem to help. Wyoming does a great job. Here is how: Norway also does a great job, largely by doing the exact opposite of what you are recommending. They restrict movement, but otherwise preserve peoples' rights, dignity and community integration as much as possible. So yes, recidivism is a huge problem in the US. Grace reduces recidivism, not wrath. This should be obvious to any conservative is kind of the very core of our religion.

  6. What wrath? Punishment is not wrath, but justice. Grace, even in Christianity presupposes humility and repentance. That's all I really said above. Rights can be restored on a case-by-case basis as a convict lives out repentance. Repentance, the fact that I am a sinner and in need of forgiveness is kind of at the very core of our religion too and that should be obvious to any conservative Christian as well!

  7. Good points. I guess I believe in prevenient grace, in theology and practice. Regardless of your theology, I think the strategies that more closely resemble prevenient grace also seem to do a better job in practice. Score one for Augustine and Calvin!

  8. Kim, you are so right. For nearly thirty years when ever an individual, usually a fundamentalist, so smugly asked me "What would you believe if someone killed a member of your family?", I, with a look that said, "I wouldn't go there if I were you", responded, "What would you believe if one of your family did the killing?" Oh, I have always been against capital punishment, but when one of your own family sits in prison for life, you live the horror, as thousands of others do, of what the sentence could have been, and was for many others.

  9. What's the answer? I am a public school teacher and problem students become problem adults. I realize that we are putting too many people away for nonviolent crimes but the cry for ending it is louder than the cry for solutions.

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