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Prisons: Prisoners - The Characteristics Of U.s. Inmate Populations

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On 31 December 1985 there were 487,593 inmates confined in America's prisons; U.S. Department of Justice figures showed that as of 30 June 1998 there were 1,210,034 inmates incarcerated in the United States (Gilliard). This was an amazing rise in the prison population by 772,441 inmates in just over twelve years. Most of these increases can be attributed to tough new laws that give long prison sentences to career criminals (with multiple felony convictions) and drug offenders.

The overwhelming majority of those imprisoned in America in 1998 (1,102,653 inmates, or 91% of the prison population) were confined in state institutions, not federal prisons (Gilliard). This is because most felons—even those who have committed federal offenses—are prosecuted through state court systems. It is significant that most prisoners serve their sentences in state institutions because, for the most part, these facilities are more dilapidated and have fewer resources and programs than federal penitentiaries.

When considering incarceration rates (or the numbers of inmates imprisoned per 100,000 population, as of 30 June 1998) for different regions of the country, southern states had the highest rate of imprisonment (508 inmates per 100,000 population), followed by western states (411 inmates). The incarceration rates for midwestern and northeastern states were lower (respectively, 357 and 318 inmates per 100,000 population). Among individual states, California had the largest number of prisoners (158,742), followed by Texas (143,299). Both of these states had more incarcerated inmates than the entire federal prison system (118,408). The states with the smallest numbers of prisoners were North Dakota (883) and Vermont (1,312). Louisiana and Texas had the highest rates of imprisonment (respectively, 709 inmates and 700 inmates per 100,000 population); Minnesota and Maine had the lowest rates (respectively, 117 and 121 inmates per 100,000 population; Gilliard).

Among the 1,023,572 inmates incarcerated in state and federal prisons as of 31 December 1995, the overwhelming majority (961,210 inmates, or 94%) were male (Stephan). Between 31 December 1990 and 31 December 1995, however, the numbers of incarcerated women in the United States grew at a faster rate (a 56% increase) than the numbers of incarcerated men (a 42% increase; Stephan).

More minority group members are incarcerated in the United States than white, non-Hispanics. As of 31 December 1995, there were 488,222 African Americans imprisoned (48% of the prison population), compared to 363,918 white, non-Hispanics (36%) and 147,365 Hispanics (14%). There were very few incarcerated Native Americans (10,519, or 1%) and Asian Americans (8,436, or 1%; Stephan).

Relatively few inmates in America are incarcerated in high security prisons. As of 31 December 1995, 202,174 inmates (20% of the prison population) were imprisoned in maximum security institutions, compared to 415,688 inmates (41%) in medium security facilities and 366,227 inmates (36%) in minimum security facilities (39,483 inmates were confined in prisons with no specified security level classification; Stephan).

Almost half (46%) of the inmates serving time in state prisons in 1996 had current convictions for violent offenses (Mumola and Beck). Among the remaining inmates in these prisons, 24 percent were convicted for property offenses, 23 percent for drug offenses, and 7 percent for public order offenses (e.g., gambling and alcohol-related crimes; Mumola and Beck). Trends since 1980 showed declines in the numbers of inmates incarcerated for violent and property offenses, with a sharp increase in the numbers imprisoned for drug offenses (Beck and Gilliard). These figures must be interpreted cautiously, because many inmates are versatile offenders who have committed other types of crimes than the ones for which they were convicted.

These statistics offer some general insight into the composition of prison populations. A more comprehensive understanding of prison life, however, requires consideration of the social organization of prisons.

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