It is often said that has the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Is that true? Yes. Statistics from sources like the World Prison Brief, an online database providing a look into prison systems around the world, show that America houses more than two million inmates — nearly 500,000 more than China, which is the next highest on the list.
In addition to locking people up at unprecedented rates, America also lays claim to the highest recidivism rate in the word— a staggering 76 percent. Compare that with Norway, which boasts the lowest rate at just 20 percent.
Now here is the interesting thing: the US is not even close to the top of the list when it comes to countries with the highest rates of violent crime. Those spots are occupied by Honduras, Venezuela, Belize and Guatemala. Without being the most violent country on the planet, America still manages to incarcerate the most citizens, and then see the majority of those inmates reoffend.
Opinions abound on why America outstrips the world in incarceration and non-rehabilitation rates, but a common thought is that the broken prison system is rooted in a variety of factors, such as for-profit prison systems that effect cuts to inmates’ access to education and proper nutrition, a school-to-prison pipeline that unfairly targets non-white and socially disadvantaged citizens, and the lack of rehabilitation services for a diverse range of inmates who are serving time for a range of offenses, from being too poor to pay a traffic ticket to violent homicide. And the lack of tools that could be provided through a focus on rehabilitation creates very low chances of successful employment and social reintegration upon release.
The way prisoners are treated is a key driver of their chances at successful rehabilitation, as proven by the famous—and disastrous— Stanford Prison Experiment. One only needs to look around the world at how prisoners are housed, nourished and educated to see the underlying cracks in the system. For example:
· United States:
o A typical cell is 6×8 feet, with windows and doors barred
o Little to no privacy is afforded for toilet activities
o Recent years have seen for-profit food services slashing budgets, resulting in undernourished inmates
o Lack of enforced human rights
o Reports of torture
o Small cells or dormitory conditions with overcrowding
o Reports of forced labor and harsh working and living conditions
o Rooms resemble college dorms and have private bathrooms
o Windows and doors are not barred
o Access to art, nature, education and music
o Cognitive behavior programs aimed at reducing recidivism
o Severe overcrowding
o Frequently targeted by human rights groups advocating for better conditions
o Disproportionally high Muslim populations in jail, which is attributed to racism
o Strong focus on societal reintegration
o Normalization process tries to mimic outside life on the inside
o No bars in cells and private bathrooms
o Robust access to athletic and hobby activities
o Reports of rampant corruption and violence
o Reports of rampant gang control in prisons
o Deteriorating infrastructure and inhumane conditions
It’s easy to draw conclusions from comparisons: where inmates are treated humanely, given a measure of privacy, and access to activities that stimulate the mind, body and spirit, you see lower rates of incarceration and lower rates of recidivism. Where you see crowding, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, inhumane treatment and little more than lip service given to rehabilitation programs, the result is higher incarceration and recidivism rates.
Perhaps photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin, who has documented the human condition around the world, including prison life, said it best. “Prisons reflect the societies they inhabit.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.