Above: A visual representation of states in the United States by the rate of incarceration under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities. It does not include inmates in jail, May 17, 2011.
America’s incarceration nation
You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.
A population of 2.4 million is a lot – enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?
Here’s a profile of Incarceration Nation:
Population size: As a country – as opposed to a prison system – Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Bahrain and Iceland.
Geographic area: There are more than 4,500 prisons in the United States. Let’s assume that each of those prisons takes up about half a square mile of land – a reasonable (and probably quite low) estimate given that most prisons are, for security reasons, surrounded by some empty space. That gives Incarceration Nation an estimated land area of about 2,250 square miles: small, but still larger than Brunei, Bahrain and Singapore.
Population Density: No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India. In 2011, federal prisons were operating 39 percent above capacity; in many state systems, overcrowding was much worse.
A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families.
Birthright citizenship? An estimated 10,000 babies are born each year in Incarceration Nation. Most are “deported” within months, generally landing with foster families. But Incarceration Nation does have its own form of birthright citizenship, if you can call it that: as many as 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent end up incarcerated themselves at some point.
Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.
Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed. For the average American, this means that one’s odds of spending time in Incarceration Nation depend greatly on gender and race: a white woman has only a one in 111 lifetime chance of ending up incarcerated, while a black man has a whopping one in three chance.
Health: One study found that the incarcerated are “more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress.” More than half of Incarceration Nation’s citizens are mentally ill, with depression rates roughly on a par with those experienced by citizens of Afghanistan.
Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration . Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like – almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor. Large private prison companies (such as CCA, the Geo Group, and Cornell Companies) boast impressive annual revenues. In 2011, for instance, CCA had annual revenues of over $1.7 billion.
Labor Standards: If you think low labor costs in countries such as China and Bangladesh are a threat to U.S. workers and businesses, labor conditions in Incarceration Nation will dangerously raise your blood pressure. UNICOR, a.k.a. Federal Prison Industries, employs 8 percent of “work eligible” federal prisoners. Hourly wages range from 23 cents an hour – about on a par with garment workers in Bangladesh – to a princely $1.35 for “premium” prisoners, comparable to the hourly wage of Chinese garment workers.
Who benefits from these low wages? The U.S. Department of Defense, for one. The DOD is UNICOR’s largest customer; in fiscal year 2011 it accounted for $357 million of UNICOR’s annual sales. UNICOR makes everything from Patriot missile components to body armor for the DOD.
No one likes to talk about this, of course: “We sell products made by prison labor” isn’t the kind of slogan likely to generate consumer enthusiasm. But to those in the know – as an online video promoting UNICOR’s call-center services boasts – prison labor is “the best-kept secret in outsourcing.”
Maybe Incarceration Nation really is a foreign country.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation.