New maps show regional trends in U.S. incarceration crisis

(Credit: Damian/Flickr)

The United States has an incarceration crisis. Although the U.S. is home to just 5 percent of the global population, the country contains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and despite crime being at historic lows, the rate of incarceration is astoundingly higher than just a few decades ago.

This national problem has been illustrated in a unique new series of maps, which reveals some striking differences in the rates of incarceration among individual states and between genders.

The maps, created by Aizman Law Firm from data by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, alter state borders to reflect the size of each state directly proportional to its per capita rate of prisoner population by jurisdiction. In other words, areas with high proportions of inmates look larger, while areas with lower proportions appear smaller.

In the map below, much of the South, Northeast and Midwest are bloated beyond recognition. Meanwhile, the West shrinks. Delaware and Connecticut dominate the East Coast, and in the South, Louisiana rivals Texas in size. In the West, Arizona and Idaho fill out. California becomes a sliver of its former self.

 

Unsurprisingly, states with more people in their prison systems also tend to have higher crime rates. But higher crime rates do not paint the entire picture, because the justice system is so fragmented by the state lines; and state law, according to Prison Policy, accounts for the majority of prisoners (57 percent) overall.

Louisiana is a good example, since it has the nation and world’s highest incarceration rate. Although the southern state has seen a recent drop in state inmates over the last couple of years, Louisiana retains the title of the world’s prison capital largely because the regional justice system maintains it.

“You have people who are so invested in maintaining the present system – not just the sheriffs, but judges, prosecutors, other people who have links to it,” said Burk Foster, a former professor at the Univ­ersity of Louisiana-Lafayette and an expert on Louisiana prisons, in a 2012 interview with Nola.com. “They don’t want to see the prison system get smaller or the number of people in custody reduced, even though the crime rate is down, because the good old boys are all linked together in the punishment network, which is good for them financially and politically.”

The maps also show the geographical breakdown of America’s female prison population, as well as the population over the years (see figure below), which has risen at an appalling rate.

“There is a tired narrative that exists about the male American inmate, and it is outdated,” said Domenica D’Ottavio, from the map project’s marketing team, in an interview with Humanosphere. “The rate of growth at which women are incarcerated outpaces that of men. The number of women in prison grew by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2014, and that’s a story that needs to be told.”

The vast majority of prisoners in the United States, and around the world, are men. Because of this, women’s incarceration rates are often overshadowed. Even so, U.S.-to-world ratios for women are similar to that of men: Only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., according to Prison Policy, but the U.S. accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women.

For years, U.S. policymakers have argued over how to resolve the nation’s mass incarceration crisis, and state and federal efforts to actualize criminal-justice reform are under way. But without a more complete understanding of the regional policy flaws and social disparities that fuel the system, the country will continue to pay the cost ($80 billion a year, to be exact) to keep some 2.4 million prisoners behind bars.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com