The United States has 25% of the world’s prison population, yet it only has 5% of the world’s population. This means that, as we speak, more than 2 million people are sitting behind bars in the U.S. Even more alarming than the quantity of prisoners in this country is the fact that the vast majority—around three-quarters—have not even been convicted of a crime.
Mass Incarceration is a Problem
The unfortunate reality is that the number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. is the product of the political will of politicians and lobbyists, not you and your neighbors. Things like mandatory minimums and “three strikes” legislation have caused prison numbers—and prisons costs to taxpayers—to skyrocket. Yet neither increase public safety.
And, as the U.S. continues to imprison more people than ever before, prison conditions continue to deteriorate. Almost all prisons experience overcrowding. And some present dangers, provide inadequate healthcare and do virtually nothing to prepare prisoners for life after release.
The injustice that results from prisons inadequately addressing mental-health issues continues to get worse as time goes on. Approximately 10% of adult inmates and 20% of juvenile inmates suffer from mental illness. The majority of folks suffering from mental illnesses go to prison for nonviolent offenses. Yet untrained staff, limited medical care and a frequent lack of access to medications stand in the way of these individuals getting the mental healthcare they need.
Yet No One Holds Prison Officials Accountable
Despite the U.S.’s mass-incarceration problem, there are very few ways for us to hold prison officials accountable for wrongdoing. Whether through inmates dying, sexual assaults by prison staff, the refusal of medically necessary treatment, or more stories, prison officials are regularly in the news for misconduct. But stories about them being held accountable aren’t quite as regular.
A discussion about prison accountability can’t be complete without addressing private prisons, too. The U.S. has the world’s largest private prison operation, which involves almost 10% of prisoners—more than 120,000. The corporations that run these prisons profit handsomely, reporting annual revenues around $4 billion. Despite growing evidence that private prisons are less safe, ineffective at rehabilitation and more expensive, the private prison population remains on the rise.