• Barack Obama sits down to learn from inmates at an Oklahoma prison in VICELAND’s latest special report. (SBS)Source: SBS
The only thing more depressing than these stats is the fact they all seem to be getting worse.
Evan Valletta

19 Dec 2017 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2017 - 11:28 AM

SBS VICELAND continues its recent spate of insightful special reports with Fixing the System: Crime and Punishment, a doco set on both sides of the walls of El Reno Federal Prison, just outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Featured in the episode is Barack Obama, who tours the facility and meets many of its inmates, most of whom were sentenced for drug-related crimes.

Before you tune in, here are some eye-opening statistics about America's prison system to set the scene.


There are over 2.3 million Americans currently in prison

The nation’s hefty inmate population is spread across 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centres and prisons in the US territories. 

The US houses almost a quarter of the world’s prison population

This is an often quoted statistic – made more daunting by the fact that the USA only contains roughly five percent of the world’s population. Hillary Clinton famously cited the stat during a 2015 speech, and that proportion of the world’s prison population has remained between 22-25 percent ever since.


Over 1 million arrests per year are for drug possession

This statistic is a little unsettling when you consider it’s approximately four times greater than the amount of arrests for drug sales, and is one of the focuses of VICE’s special report.


Only 23 percent of released prisoners stay out of prison

The last study on recidivism revealed that 77 percent of state prisoners who were released in 2005 were re-arrested by 2010, with 43 percent of those going back inside within the first year of their release.

Black Americans are far more likely to go to prison

Averaged over the nation’s state prisons, African-Americans are sent to prison at a rate just over five times greater than whites, and in some states, they’re 10 times more likely to end up behind bars. While black Americans make up 13 percent of the nation’s population, they reach roughly 40 percent of the prison population. Pervasive racism within police forces and law courts are currently under heavy media and social scrutiny.


Running the US prison system costs roughly $80 billion per year

That price tag of operating federal, state and local jails is startling enough, but is also considered a gross understatement when you factor in the social costs of incarceration. A first-of-its-kind study estimated that when factoring in the consequential costs to families, children and communities, that figure reaches over $1 trillion dollars – a total that eclipses the operational costs of the entire US government.


LGBTQI Americans are disproportionately imprisoned

Transgender adults and LGBTQI youth are well-versed in experiences with the US prison system. Approximately 16 percent of trans people have been incarcerated compared to 2.7 percent of all adults, while 13-15 percent of young people in detention identify as LGBTQI. A major factor affecting these numbers is the commission of petty crimes associated with displacement, homelessness and poverty.

12 people die each day in a US prison

According to the justice department, approximately a dozen inmates die behind bars each day, or roughly 4,400 per year. In state and federal prisons, most deaths are health-related – the leading illnesses being cancer or heart disease. In local prisons, the top cause is suicide, making up a third of all deaths and usually occurring within the first month of incarceration. Tragically, more than 70 percent of those suicides eventuate before conviction.


LA County is home to the largest prison system on earth

With an average population of 22,000 inmates, this overcrowded system includes Men’s Central Jail, a facility infamous for around-the-clock savagery and chaos, and plagued by ongoing deputy-on-inmate violence.


Louisiana is “the prison capital of the world”

In Louisiana, one in 86 adults is currently in prison. 53 percent are housed in local, for-profit private prisons, which are usually insufficiently staffed and therefore more dangerous than state-run facilities. The situation is even worse for minorities – one in 14 adults is serving a prison sentence, with one in seven currently in prison, on probation or out on parole. Louisiana claims the harshest prison system in the US, with many non-violent offenders serving lengthy sentences for relatively minor crimes (minor drug possession can land an arrestee a life sentence).

Other notable stats

  • 6.8 percent of the nation’s inmates are female.
  • Drug offences make up roughly 46 percent of all sentences.
  • Homicide and related offences make up 3.2 percent of all sentences.
  • Immigration offences make up 7.5 percent of all sentences.
  • The US has more correctional facilities than any other country on Earth.


Watch Fixing the System: Crime and Punishment on Thursday 21 December at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.

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