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Prison, Jail Data Show Incarceration ‘Myths’

The Prison Policy Institute has published a new analysis of the U.S. prison and jail population, detailing what kinds of facilities hold the 2.3 million people behind bars and what offenses brought them there.

Inmates are incarcerated in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories, the institute says.

Because federal statistics on prisoners are so far behind, the subject of a new complaint by criminologists, the institute’s data on prisons do not go beyond a report for 2017 issued last spring by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Still, the data don’t change significantly from year to year. The institute emphasizes what it calls the “enormous churn” of the incarcerated population each year. More than 600,000 people enter prisons each year while jails record 10.6 million entries.

The institute lists what it calls five myths about incarceration in the U.S., and discusses why they are misleading:

      • Releasing “nonviolent drug offenders” would end mass incarceration. Drug offenses  account for the incarceration of almost half a million people, but that means 80 percent of prisoners are locked up for something other than a drug offense.
      • Private prisons are the corrupt heart of mass incarceration. Actually, fewer than 9 percent of inmates are held in private prisons.
      • Prisons are “factories behind fences” that exist to provide companies with a huge slave labor force. In fact, fewer than one percent of prisons are  employed by private companies through the federal PIECP program, which requires them to pay at least minimum wage before deductions. Prisons do rely on the labor of incarcerated people for food service, laundry and other operations, and they pay incarcerated workers low wages, between 86 cents and $3.45 per day for the most common prison jobs as of a few years ago.
      • People in prison for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released. Recidivism data do not support the belief that people who commit violent crimes ought to be locked away for decades for the sake of public safety, the institute says. People convicted of violent and sexual offenses are among the least likely to be rearrested, and those convicted of rape or sexual assault have rearrest rates 20 percent lower than all other offense categories combined.
      • Expanding community supervision is the best way to reduce incarceration. The institute contends that the conditions imposed on those under supervision “are often so restrictive that they set people up to fail.”  In 2016, at least 168,000 people were incarcerated for such “technical violations” of probation or parole.

This summary was produced by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report.