America: Incarceration Nation

Alright, we Americans crow about our desire to spread democracy around the world and preach that the essence of civilized society is freedom and liberty. The most recent paper published by the Prison Policy Initiative makes you wonder how true to our ideals we really are. The above graphic was cut out of the Prison Policy Initiative’s polemic and although you can’t see a value next to the lengthy aqua block next to the United States, it’s 716. What that means is we incarcerate 716 people per 100,000 population, which is 5 times higher than our relative from which we sought independence.

We all look at our close neighbor, Cuba, as being a closed society that is under the death grip of that feeble tyrant, Fidel Castro. Maybe that’s true. However, would it surprise you that 36 states and the District of Columbia have incarceration rates higher than Cuba’s, which is the nation with the second highest incarceration rate in the world. New Jersey and New York follow just after Cuba. Although New York has been actively working on reducing its prison population, it’s still tied with Rwanda, which has the third highest national incarceration rate. Rwanda incarcerates so many people (492 per 100,000) because thousands are sentenced or awaiting trial in connection with the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people. Last time I checked, New York hasn’t experienced a genocide on that scale!

Utah, Nebraska, and Iowa all lock up a greater portion of their populations than El Salvador, a country with a recent civil war and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Five of the U.S. states with the lowest incarceration rates — Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — have higher incarceration rates than countries that have experienced major 20th century social traumas, including several former Soviet republics and South Africa.

Maine and Vermont have the lowest incarceration rates among the fifty states but even they incarcerate far more than the United State’s closest allies.

Now for some disturbing information, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any society in the world followed by other bastions of liberalism such as Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas. Ohio has the 26 th highest incarceration in the world, 12 places higher than Cuba. You’ll never guess the name of the country that has the lowest incarceration rate—Comoros, which is an idyllic island off of the south-eastern coast of Africa. Maybe we should all visit that island and study their culture!