America is obsessed with putting people behind bars. No other nation on earth incarcerates as many of its people. It’s not even close.
There are about 2.3 million people locked up in jails and prisons in the US right now—2.3 million! Having trouble picturing a number that high? Think of it this way: 2.3 million is just about equal to the entire population of Houston. It’s also about four times the population of our home state, Vermont!
But have you ever thought about where all these people are being held? We talk about jail and prison a lot, and it’s tempting to use those two terms interchangeably, but in reality, they are very different.
Item number 1
Jails are for short sentences, prisons for long
Jails are intended to house people for short periods of time (although that’s sometimes abused by local officials), while prisons are built to hold people for longer than a year. Most people currently sitting in jail haven’t been convicted of anything. About 76% of them are legally innocent—and the majority of that 76% are there only because they cannot afford bail. Prisons, on the other hand, lock up people who have actually been convicted of crimes, but there are severe racial disparities in this country when it comes to who we lock up and for how long (also: Black people are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people).
Item number 2
Jails are typically run by a local government
Jails are usually overseen by a city or a county. Because they’re designed to handle short-term stays, they usually aren’t set up to offer things that might be found at a prison, like exercise yards (or really any outdoor space at all), medical and mental-health facilities, or educational programs (which is why serving a longer sentence at a local jail can be so inhumane). They also experience a lot of turnover. And by “a lot,” we mean an almost unbelievable amount: People go to jail 10.6 million times a year! This is what an obsession with incarceration looks like.
Item number 3
There are two kinds of prisons: state and federal
More than 600,000 people enter prison every year, and whether they head to a state or federal prison depends on the crime they were convicted of (e.g., people convicted of a federal crime go to a federal prison). But as we mentioned earlier, when we talk about prisons, about convictions and longer sentences, it’s important to remember that there’s injustice baked right into the criminal justice system. Black men, to provide just one example, are handed longer sentences than white men convicted of the exact same crimes.
Item number 4
Well, OK, there are also private prisons
We’re not fans of the private prison industry. Private prisons house nearly 8% of the overall prison population, and the industry itself is one of many (like the bail-bond industry, or the prison food, health, and telecom industries) that seek to profit off the misery of the people caught up in America’s broken criminal justice system. Private prisons, however, are nothing if not innovative: they’ve recently found that they can turn even more profits by housing detained immigrants.
Item number 5
What if we didn’t send so many people to jail or prison in the first place?
We think it’s ridiculous to lock up so many people day after day, year after year. Front-end criminal justice reform is all about investing in people and communities instead of police, jails, and prisons. But even if someone does commit a crime, sending them to jail or prison often isn’t the best response. Diversion programs are more effective at turning people’s lives around and making our communities safe. (For those concerned about costs, they’re far cheaper too!) Programs that help keep people out of jail in the first place are a great way of breaking America’s fixation on incarceration.