5 Things You Don’t Know About the American Prison System


The new season of Orange Is the New Black lands this week. But the reality of the American prison system is a far cry from the stylized version you’ll see on Netflix. Here’s what you don’t know about U.S. prisons and why it matters to people of faith.

The real story of the American prison system

The American prison system exists somewhere in the background of our lives. We know it’s there, but we try not to think about it.

Although movies and TV shows like OITNB present versions of prison life, it’s what you don’t know about the American prison system that tells the real story about prisons in the U.S.

  1. The U.S. is the world’s largest jailer. The U.S. accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, yet our prisons hold 25% of the world’s prisoners. The American prison system is literally bursting at the seams. Currently, we hold the unenviable title of being the world’s biggest jailer.
  2. The prison population is exploding. Approximately 1 out of every 100 U.S. adults is currently in prison or jail — and the percentage of people behind bars is expanding rapidly. Since 1970, the population of the U.S. prison system has grown 700%.
  3. Many prisoners lack adequate legal counsel. A staggering 80% of defendants in the U.S. legal system are unable to afford an attorney and public defenders are stretched thin. Since most public defenders maintain caseloads of 100+ clients, thousands of people are sentenced each year with little or no legal representation.
  4. The majority of inmates have been incarcerated for relatively minor offenses. Think most prisoners are hardcore criminals? Think again. Parole violations are responsible for around 35% of all prison admissions, and two-thirds of those violations are due to technical violations like missing a meeting with a parole officer. Although drug-related charges are a common cause for incarceration, approximately 4 out of 5 drug offenses are for possession — not sales.
  5. Incarceration is hurting our society. More than 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated. Based on current trends, as many as 1 in 3 black men born today will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Also, 1 out of every 28 kids currently has a parent in prison, and 1 out of every 31 adults is behind bars, on probation or on parole.

Why you should care about what’s happening in America’s prisons

Here’s another statistic that ought to blow your mind: By conservative estimates, between 2% and 5% of the inmates who pled guilty are innocent of their crimes. That means there are literally tens of thousands of innocent people incarcerated in prisons across the nation.

But even if every inmate in the U.S. prison system were guilty, it wouldn’t change our responsibility. In the book of Hebrews, it says:

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. (Heb. 13.3)

When I was a kid, I didn’t care about taxes. But after I became a taxpayer, discussions about tax rates suddenly landed on my radar. That’s basically how the writer of Hebrews is telling us to relate to prisoners. We can’t forget about prisoners just because we’re not behind bars. Instead, we’re called to advocate for prisoners and speak up about the prison system as if we were right there alongside them.

When we view the plight of prisoners through that lens, we’re confronted by the fact that the American prison system is ripe for reform on several fronts:

Prisons should be about redemption, not retribution.

For years, policymakers have debated whether the American prison system should be about retribution (punishment for crimes) or rehabilitation (changing the attitudes and behaviors of inmates). Maybe it’s time to abandon those concepts and embrace the concept of redemption — making prisons places where individuals have the opportunity to make retribution for their mistakes by pursuing personal, social and spiritual redemption.

To catch a glimpse of a more sane approach to imprisonment, check out this story about how Norway is building prisons that focus on second chances.

Prisoners are worthy of compassion. They deserve to be valued and treated with dignity. 

Prisons shouldn’t function as corporate warehouses and inmates shouldn’t be treated as if they were less than human. Regardless of their crimes, prisoners have dignity and value in the eyes of God. In Matthew 25, Jesus aligns himself with prisoners and compares the way we treat prisoners with the way we treat him.

We need to reform unfair sentencing and sentencing disparity.

Too many inmates are serving lengthy prison terms for non-serious offenses. In addition to straining the entire prison system, unfair sentencing — and sentencing disparity based on race or other factors — has a devastating effect on the families of inmates who should have been released from prison long ago. It’s time to take a fresh look at sentencing practices and the entire American prison system.

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