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Does The World Need More Prisons? - Facts & Infographic

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In his celebrated Socratic dialogue called The Republic, Plato analyzed the definition of justice and the order and character of the just city-state in about 380 BC. One of the key issues of the debate was the purpose of the prison system. Should prisons be used as confinement and punishment, are they used to hold those deemed too dangerous to exist in society or should they be used as reformative centers? The debate is as relevant today as it has been in ancient times.


History of Prisons

The notion of locking criminals up in prisons has been in existence through most of history. In the Old Testament the Mosaic law spoke of prisons as places where those who had trials pending could be held in custody until the case was decided (Leviticus 24:12; Numbers 15:34). In Egypt, Joseph was imprisoned in a jail attached to the house of the captain of the guard (Genesis 39:20 and 40:3). Early prisons were designed to hold pre-trial detainees and criminals who awaited the capital punishment.


The modern prison system was developed in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham advocated the emergence of prisons where incarceration and confinement would be used as punishment tools. The earliest of the modern prisons sprung up in London. Criminal rehabilitation soon became another much debated issue.


As the British Empire spread across continents, Britain also started to build up penal colonies for the transportation of convicted criminals. Parts of the Americas, a number of major islands in Asia, Australia, French Guiana, and Siberia were the earliest penal colonies. The Eastern State Penitentiary is the state of Pennsylvania is the oldest prison in the US. In 1776 it was known as the Walnut Street Jail and by 1821 the jail had been converted into the penitentiary.


World Prison Population

The United States of America has the highest prison population in the world. The per capita prison population is over 730 in every 100,000 population. China which comes next has only over half the number of people in prison. After China, Russia has the most incarcerated people in the world. Brazil, India, and Iran follow closely and have the most prison inmates after Russia. Mexico, Thailand, South Africa, and Ukraine form the other countries in the top 10 nations with prison population. Interestingly, all the BRICS countries feature among the top 10 countries.


America’s Prisons

The agency responsible for prisons in the US is the Department of Justice and the administration of the prisons is overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As of 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics there are over 2,239,751 people in US prisons. This figure includes pre-trial detainees and those who have been held on remand. There has been a slight drop in the numbers from 2,291,912 in 2009 though the reasons are not very evident yet.


While the US accounts for about 5% of the world’s population it accounts for over 25% of the world’s prison population. One in fifteen Afro-American men in the country is in prison and one in every thirteen Afro-American men is denied voting rights as an ex-felon. Most federal prisons are operating at 135% their rated capacity. The incarceration rates in the US have increased over 500% in the past 3 decades. US taxpayers pay about $69 billion annually to maintain the prison system. President Obama’s 2012 budget featured a 10% increase in prison spending. It takes over 4 times as much to keep a person in jail as it costs to send a child to school.


Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp: The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a detainment and interrogation facility in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba but maintained by the United States military. Established in January 2002, the camp is at the center of a raging controversy as the camp is considered outside US legal jurisdiction and the detainees (US adversaries from Afghanistan and Iraq) are not accorded any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.


After much controversy, on January 7, 2011, President Obama signed the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill which inhibits the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners thus preventing the closure of the detention facility. In April 2011, over 779 secret files relating to the harsh living conditions of the prisoners at this detention camp were published by Wikileaks.


Incarceration and Crime Rates

Are increasing prison numbers and expenses helping the safety in the country?


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All Violent Crimes (per 100,000 persons)





Incarceration Rates (per 100,000 persons)






According to studies some 25% of the decline in violent crimes in the US can be attributed to increased incarceration. Over 75% of the drop in crime rates in the country has been due to factors other than incarceration.


A Fresh Look At Incarceration

"Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells" - Vicky Pelaez, Global Research, January 31, 2013


According to this report, the burgeoning prison industry has its backers in the corporate shareholders who in turn lobby for longer sentences in a form of modern-day servitude. The reason America's prisons are overflowing is that prison labor comes cheap. The report also cites the Left Business Observer - the federal prison industry in the US now produces a variety of products - 100% of military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, and water canteens. Apart from military supplies prison workers form 98% of the market for equipment assembly services. The prisoners produce 93% of the paints, 92% of stove assembly units, 36% of the home appliances, 30% of the headphones/microphones/speakers, and 21% of the office furniture produced in the country. Could commercial be the reasons the US prisons are now overflowing rather than the safety of society as a whole?


Deadliest Prisons Of The World

Let us look at the prisons which are regularly deemed the deadliest or harshest prisons of the world. These prisons make us realize that the safety and security of the inmates themselves is a major concern in most prisons.

Carandiru Penitentiary, Brazil – Designed in 1920, this prison in Sao Paulo soon became one of the most notorious prisons in the world and the site of a massacre in 1992. It was demolished in 2002.

Tadmor Prison, Syria – Located north east of Damascus, the Tadmor prison was known for the harsh conditions and blatant human rights violations. It was the scene of a massacre in the 1980 which killed thousands of inmates.

La Sabaneta Prison, Venezuela - La Sabanet seems to have seen it all - from cholera to protests and riots to massacres. The rough life and maddening inactivity seems to drive the inmates to unprecedented levels of violence.

Diyarbakir Prison, Turkey - The nicknames "the period of barbarity" and "the hell of Diyarbak?r" adequately describe the notoriety of this 1980-built prison. It is currently administered by the Turkish Ministry of Justice.

Le Sante Prison, France - Veronique Vasseur's 2000 book detailing the filth and contemptuous conditions in what was hitherto considered an elite prison with high-security and VIP facilities, opened up a can of worms in France.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, California, US – What was believed to be an inescapable prison designed to hold the troublesome criminals from other federal prisons in the country. It is perhaps the most notorious and best-known of prisons.

ADX Florence Supermax Facility, Colorado, US – Designed to hold the most hardened male criminals in the US, this prison also holds domestic and international terrorists and has tight security control.

Rikers Island Prison, New York, US – Used as a jail since 1864, it houses prisoners in need of extreme protective custody, and criminals with mental ailments. There are about 14,000 inmates here.

Bang Kwang Central Prison, Thailand - One of the harshest prisons of the world which handles death row and long-sentence prisoners. For the first three months of their term prisoners are required to wear leg shackles.

San Quentin Prison, California, US - The prison opened up in 1852, and is the oldest Californian prison. It holds the state's only death row for male inmates.


Do We Need More Prisons?

According to this data (published Jan 2010) over half the prisons in the US are operating at over 95% their capacity. Over 16 counties had prisons operating at over 100%. Does this mean we require more prisons?


A look at the country's legislation and the reasons incarceration or confinement is accorded is important in deciding if we really need more jails to keep the people safe.


“Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings” – Angela Davis

“America is the land of the second chance - and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life” - George W. Bush

“Every friend of freedom must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence” - Milton Friedman

"He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy" - Thomas Hobbes

Does The World Need More Prisons?


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Does The World Need More Prisons.

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