So Many Prisons. So Many Shattered Lives.

When someone makes the statement “the United States has a lot of prisons”, it probably doesn’t sound like a surprising fact to most.  On a daily basis, we hear about the local, state and federal prisons that are in close proximity to our communities.

But as a matter of scale, did you know that the United States actually has more prisons and jails than it does colleges?  That’s the shocking fact revealed by this article from Christopher Ingraham of the  Washington Post

There were 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. as of the 2010 Census. It’s often been remarked that our national incarceration rate of 707 adults per every 100,000 residents is the highest in the world, by a huge margin.

We tend to focus less on where we’re putting all those people. But the 2010 Census tallied the location of every adult and juvenile prisoner in the United States. If we were to put them all on a map, this is what they would look like:

(click here to view the map)

The map shows the raw number of prisoners in each U.S. county as of the 2010 Census. Much of the discussion of regional prison population only centers around inmates in our 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities. But at any given time, hundreds of thousands more individuals are locked up in the nation’s 3,200 local and county jails. This map includes these individuals as well.

To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. — 5,000 plus — than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.


No state illustrates this stark contrast better than Texas, which has roughly 440 prisons and jails compared to only 369 degree-granting institutions of higher learning, both public and private.  There are literally more places to get locked up in the Lone Star State than there are to further one’s post-secondary education.

It’s a statistic that should rightfully warrant pause, and should also cause us to question why our government feels the need to invest so much money and time into ruining people’s lives??   You may have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline… theories that say many local education and law enforcement systems are basically rigged to discriminate, profile and persecute certain segments of the population.  After seeing these statistics as additional fact, it’s tough to produce sufficient evidence to the contrary.  This infographic from SuspensionStories (via PBS) gives some more startling facts about our nation’s prison population…

school to prison pipeline

As taxpayers, we have to expect more from our government than the expectation to be locked up by a certain age.  Some may think that President Obama’s proposal to provide free 2-year community college for everyone in the United States “for anyone who is willing to work for it” is far-fetched.  They say “we can’t possibly afford it” or “it would destroy the country” to enact such a bold idea.

But have we stopped to think of how much we’re spending to shatter the lives of our nation’s most precious resource… human lives??  If we stopped sending so many of our youth to prison and jail and started to actually invest in their future, it would only make us a better and stronger country in the long-term.  The proof lies above.  Our nation’s prison industrial complex is larger than our post-secondary educational complex.  The least we can do is change that.