David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in the New York Review of Books:
The United States has by far the largest prison system in the world. It is so large, in fact, so sprawling and dispersed, so administratively complex, that just how many people we keep locked up is uncertain. The most commonly cited statistic is that we have about 2.3 million inmates. This comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the Justice Department that surveys the national prison system and found that on June 30, 2009, the US had 203,233 federal prisoners, 1,326,547 state prisoners, and 767,620 detainees in local jails.
But then, in addition, more than 80,000 youth are held in juvenile detention facilities on any given day. Before being deported, about 400,000 people a year also pass through our immigration detention system, which is run mostly by the Department of Homeland Security. Hundreds of thousands more are held in halfway houses and police lockups; no one knows the exact number. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees jails in Indian Country, and the Department of Defense has its own network of more than sixty detention facilities all over the globe.
The people we imprison are overwhelmingly our most disadvantaged: the poor and the poorly educated, the black and the brown, the mentally ill. Typically, they’re given extraordinarily long sentences compared to prisoners in the European Union, often for infractions that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. And while they’re imprisoned, appalling numbers of them are subjected to sexual abuse.