Mass Incarceration in America

A word on the state of mass incarceration in America from the Equal Justice Initiative‘s website:

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The increase in the jail and prison population from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today has led to unprecedented prison overcrowding and put tremendous strain on state budgets. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.

In the 1990s, as lawmakers campaigned to “get tough on crime,” America built a new prison every two weeks and still could not meet the demand for prison beds. Violent crime has fallen by more than 51 percent since 1991, and property crime has decreased by more than 43 percent. Although the crime rate has dropped steadily to about half of what it was in 1991, spending on jails and prisons reached nearly $81 billion in FY 2010. Today, nearly seven million people in this country are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.

The politics of fear and anger fueled “tough on crime” policies—including mandatory minimum sentences, extraordinarily harsh and racially disparate penalties for even minor drug offenses, and the explosion in life sentences without parole—that led to the unprecedented and unparalleled incarceration rate in America today. Private prisons operated by for-profit corporations multiplied from five in 1998 to a hundred in 2008, and profits have increased more than 500 percent in the last 20 years, creating perverse incentives and hindering efforts to reform sentencing laws, emphasize rehabilitation goals, and reduce the prison population.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Terms and Lingo for Those Looking to Learn More

Special thanks to Prison Project members Monika Wojnowski and Devin Barkey for compiling the following information.

Still have more questions? We’d love to hear and answer them. Email


Q: What Do We Mean by the Criminal Justice System?
A: The criminal justice system is made up of three sectors: law enforcement, the criminal courts, and corrections. Law enforcement includes local police, the county sheriff, and federal agencies such as the FBI and DEA. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys make up the criminal court system. Corrections include jails, prisons, probation, and parole.
Q: Is the Criminal Justice System fair? What roles does race have in the criminal justice system?
A: Social science research has come to show that racial bias is present at every stage of the criminal justice system from policing and profiling, prosecutorial discretion, jury selection, sentencing, to the use of the death penalty.


Police and Profiling

  • A review of 20 million traffic stops found that black people are twice as likely to be pulled over than whites, and 4 times more likely to be searched1.
  • An investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the Justice Department conducted between 2012 and 2014 found that though black people in Ferguson, Missouri comprised 67% of the population, they accounted for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests. The report also found that black people were more than twice as likely to be searched after traffic stops, despite being 26% less likely to be in possession of weapons or illegal drugs.
  • The report, “Driving While Black” found that between 2011 and 2015, black drivers in Davidson County (which includes Nashville) were pulled over at a rate of 1,122 stops per 1,000 black drivers.


1 – Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race by F. Baumgartner, D. Epp, K. Shoub


Prosecutorial Discretion – This term refers to the power that prosecutors have in criminal cases. They decide when to press charges and what cases to bring to court. They can also offer plea deals to defendants – i.e. if the individual pleads guilty, the prosecutor will offer a shorter prison sentence.

  • A 2015 study of the left-leaning Women Donors Network found that 95% of elected prosecutors are white, with 79% of them being white men. The study also found that in three-fifths of states where prosecutors are elected, there are no black prosecutors.
  • A review of nearly 474,000 cases in Hampton Roads, Virginia showed that 48% of white defendants received plea bargains with no jail time compared to 22% of black defendants. When looking at defendants with no prior criminal history who pleaded guilty to robbery, 36% of white defendants received no jail time compared to only 8% of black defendants.

Jury Selection

  • In the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court made it illegal for prosecutors to dismiss prospective jurors due to their race. Despite this ruling, courts have found ways to strike down potential jurors through “race-neutral factors” like living in a black-majority neighborhood or affiliation with a historically black college.
  • A review of felony jury trials prosecuting in Louisiana’s Caddo Parish from 2003 and 2012 found that prosecutors struck 46% of prospective black jurors compared to 15% of prospective nonblack jurors.

Sentencing Disparities

  • A study of data from the National Registry of Exonerations found that black people are about 5 times more likely than white people to go to prison for drug possession (despite consistent evidence showing that African Americans and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate).
  • Black males ages 18 to 19 were 11.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males of the same age.
  • A report from the United States Sentencing Commission found that black men receive federal prison sentences that are on average 20% longer than white men who commit the same crime.

Wrongful Conviction

  • A study of data from the National Registry of Exonerations found that:
    • Innocent black people are 7 times more likely than innocent white people to be convicted of murder
    • Black people imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if convicted of killing white victims.
    • “Assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.” 
    • “Innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.” 

Death Penalty

  • In the state of Louisiana, defendants who killed white victims were 14 times more likely to be executed than defendants who killed black victims. Black men who kill white men are 30 times more likely to receive the death penalty compared to black men who killed black men. The state of Louisiana has not executed a white person for killing a black person since 1752.
  • In the state of Tennessee, black people make up 17% of the population but represent 44% of individuals on death row. Of the 9 death sentences that have been handed down in the past 10 years, 8 of the sentences were given to black defendants.

These studies are just a tiny fraction of the body of work detailing how our criminal justice system has skewed racial outcomes.

Q: Is the Criminal Justice System fair? What role does wealth have in the criminal justice system?
A: Our criminal justice system is biased against the poor, and goes hand in hand with the racial bias present in our criminal justice system.

One of the most discriminatory aspects of our criminal justice system is the money bail system. The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants return to court. However, bail is often set too high by judges, which results in many defendants sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bail. Those who cannot afford bail can end up in jail for weeks, months, and even years awaiting their trial. This has serious consequences such as job loss, inability to take care of children, and inability to pay rent. Additionally, people who fail to secure pretrial release are more likely to be convicted of the crime they are charged with. One study by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found that the overall non-felony conviction rate in New York City is 58% but is 92% for those detained until disposition13. For felony cases, the overall conviction rate was 68%, but 87% for defendants who were detained until their disposition14.

The money bail system prioritizes profit over the pursuit of justice. Insurance companies and for-profit bail bond companies generate billions by profiting off of low-income people who have to rely on companies to secure their freedom from jail.

Another way that the criminal justice system punishes the poor is through the lack of adequate legal counsel. Most jurisdictions insufficiently fund their indigent (poor) defense programs. Public defenders are often burdened with excessively high caseloads and are not able to provide an adequate defense to all of those the public defender is representing.


13 – New York City Criminal Justice Agency- Pretrail Detention and Case Outcomes, Part 1: Nonefelony Cases Mary T. Phillips

14 – CJA Research Brief Bail, Detention, & Felony Case Outcomes, Mary T. Phillips

Q: What is the difference between jail and prison?
A: Jails house individuals after they are arrested and as they are awaiting trial as well as individuals serving time for misdemeanors. A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that has a jail term of less than one year.  On the other hand, prisons house those convicted of a felony and are serving more than one year or are awaiting execution. Those who violate state laws are sent to state prisons and those who violate federal laws are sent to federal prison. Since prisons hold offenders for a longer period of time, they tend to have better-developed facilities that have greater programming opportunities.

Jails are typically operated by local law enforcement, such as cities and counties. Prisons are operated by the state government or federal government (Federal Bureau of Prisons).

Q: What Is Probation? What Is Parole? What Is the Difference?
A: Probation is an alternative to incarceration where an individual is placed on supervision in the community through a probation agency 15. While on probation individuals need to fulfill certain conditions (like participating in treatment programs or more frequent drug testing) and follow the rules of conduct within the community (like curfew). If a probationer fails to follow the conditions of their probation, they may be incarcerated.

Parole is the conditional release from prison where individuals serve the end of their sentence in the community. One can be released on parole either through a parole board decision or a mandatory part of their sentence. Individuals on parole have similar conditions to those of probationers. However, parole also functions as a method to help individuals reintegrate back into the community before the end of their sentence. If a parolee fails to comply with the conditions of his/her parole, they may be returned to prison to complete the rest of the sentence.

15 –

Q: What Is a Private Prison? What’s wrong with private prisons?
A: A private prison is a correctional facility that is operated in a for-profit manner by a party other than a governmental agency. Private prisons contract with governmental entities to provide security, housing, and programs for adult offenders. 

The three largest private prison companies are CoreCivic, GEO Group, and Management Training Corporation.  As of 2017, 7.2% of state prisoners were held in private prisons and 15.1% of federal prisoners were held in private prisons. Private prisons are mostly used for federal contracting, particularly detention centers. According to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, on an average day in November 2017, 71% of people in ICE custody were in held in privately operated jails

Private prisons emerged during the 1980s, during the height of Reagan’s War on Drugs, when prison populations were rising exponentially – and government facilities could not keep up. Private prisons flourished because private prison companies argued that the private sector could construct prisons more quickly and cost-effectively than the public sector, saving taxpayers money. 

There is debate on whether or not private prisons are more cost-effective than government facilities. The reality is that private prisons cut costs to put money in the pockets of executives rather than to save taxpayers money. Private prisons on average hire fewer employees, pay, and train them less than government prisons. This results in decreased security for staff and incarcerated individuals. A 2016 report by the Justice Department found that private prisons had more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults and 28% higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults.  Private prisons also cut corners by decreasing programming and often provide inadequate medical care. The conditions at private prisons have endangered the lives of countless incarcerated people and has even resulted in the deaths of some of them.

Q: What is CoreCivic? What are the ties between CoreCivic and Vanderbilt University?
CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, is the first private prison corporation in the United States. CoreCivic was co-founded in 1983 in Nashville, Tennessee by Thomas W. Beasley, Robert Crants. And T. Don Hutto. CoreCivic received initial investments from Vanderbilt University, from which Thomas Beasley received a law degree

 CoreCivic opened in the first for-profit correctional facility in 1984 in Shelby County, Tennessee. As of 2017, its revenue is 1.7 billion USD19. CoreCivic currently operates over 129 facilities

CoreCivic runs 4 private prisons in the state of Tennessee, which houses 26% of the state’s prison population as of 2017. In comparison, the state of Tennessee runs 10 state prisons. 

CoreCivic’s history is marred with controversy, which led the company to rebrand from Corrections Corporation of America to CoreCivic in 2016. From its inception, the company has been continually under fire for its poor treatment of incarcerated people, inadequate medical care, understaffing and underpaying its employees, and its extensive lobbying for policies that would increase the number of incarcerated people.

Q: What is Capital Punishment? What are the arguments for and against the practice?
Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a practice sanctioned by the United States government whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for committing a crime by the state. There are a variety of crimes that are punishable by death, including treason and espionage, but most death penalty convictions are used in cases of murder with “aggravated circumstances” (like murder involving rape or children). However, there is no crime in the United States where the mandatory punishment is the death penalty.

Capital punishment is still legal in 30 states. There are around 2,700 people on death row. 98% of those on death row are men, and 2% are women. California has the highest number of individuals on death row, with 737 people on death row. However, in March 2019 the governor of California declared a moratorium (temporary prohibition) on capital punishment, which granted a temporary reprieve for all of the individuals on California’s death row. As of October 2018, Florida had 354 individuals on death row, Texas had 228 individuals on death row, and five other states had over 100 individuals on death row

Public support for the death penalty has decreased over time. According to Gallup, public support for the death penalty in the United States peaked in 1994 with 80% of the public in favor of the death penalty. Public support for the death penalty has decreased to 56% of the public being in favor of the practice.

Common arguments against the death penalty:

  • It is applied arbitrarily and discriminatorily – it is applied more to offenders who are people of color or poor, or when victims are white
  • There is a risk that innocent people will be executed, and innocent people have been executed in the past
  • The capital punishment system is more expensive than a system where life without parole is the highest punishment is life without parole (it can cost the state millions per each individual due to the high cost of trials and mandatory appeals)
  • It is not an effective deterrent to crime

Common arguments for the death penalty:

  • The cruelest crimes necessitate the cruelest punishments
  • Provides closure for victim’s families
  • Citizens shouldn’t have to pay to house “the worst of the worst”
Q: What is the status of the death penalty in Tennessee?
The death penalty is still utilized in the state of Tennessee. Tennessee currently has 58 individuals on death row. 57 of these individuals are male, and 1 of them is female. Men on death row are housed (and executed) at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, TN. There is a special unit in Riverbend where individuals on death row are housed, known as Unit 2. Females on death row are housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women, which is in Nashville as well.

In 2018, the state of Tennessee resumed executions after nearly a decade without any. Three individuals were executed in 2018, and the state has set the execution dates for six individuals for 2019 and 2020.

Q: What is Recidivism? What makes reentry difficult?
Recidivism is the tendency for individuals who have committed crimes to reoffend once released from custody. Reoffending can include violating the terms of parole or by committing a new crime.  

In the United States, rates of recidivism are high. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 83% (5 out of 6) of state prisoners released in 2005  (in 30 states) were rearrested at least once during the 9 years after release, and only 17% of individuals were not rearrested in the 9 years after release

Reentry back into the community is difficult for a variety of reasons including a lack of ties to family and friends, difficulty finding a job and housing, as well as substance abuse. Only a small number of inmates receive extensive rehabilitation or participate in pre-release programs that adequately prepare individuals to return to his/her community19.  

While there is no simple solution to reducing recidivism, studies show that incarcerated individuals who participate in education programs, vocational training programs, or receive substance abuse treatment are less likely to reoffend than incarcerated individuals who do not participate in such programs. 

Rates of recidivism are also affected by the quality of reentry services provided to individuals who are released from prison, either on parole or after serving his/her sentence. Parole violations contribute significantly to the high rates of recidivism. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, 43% of offenders placed under federal community supervision were rearrested within 5 years.

19 – Corrections: An Introduction by Richard P. Seiter

Q:What is the school-to-prison pipeline?
The school-to-prison pipeline is a national trend where students are pushed out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems. Students are pushed out school through the increase in policing in schools and the use of harsh disciplinary policies like “zero-tolerance” policies. This phenomenon disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities. 

In the past two decades, there has been a significant increase in schools with school-resource officers (SROs). SROs are fully sworn law enforcement officers, who have the ability to make arrests.  Schools with SROs rely on them to enforce discipline rather than teachers and administration. With police officers present in schools, children are much more likely to be charged or arrested for non-violent offenses, putting students in contact with the criminal justice system. Examples of this include a student who was charged with assault for throwing a baby carrot at a teacher and another student was charged with felony forgery for trying to buy lunch with a fake bill. 

Zero-tolerance policies have predefined consequences (often suspension or expulsion) for infractions to school policies. The intention of zero-tolerance policies is to deter future misbehavior and increase school safety. The reality is these policies don’t allow for teachers and administrators to consider the circumstances behind the infraction and results in severe punishments being automatically applied to students without any consideration. Students who are suspended and expelled are removed from the supervision of adults and the structure of school. Students who are pushed out of the classrooms are more likely to be introduced to the criminal justice system.

Prisons and Detention Centers Near Nashville, TN.