17 Petrifying Prison Statistics for 2023

Updated · May 20, 2023

The United States of America is a world leader economically, culturally, and politically. It’s also the number one country in the world in a much grimmer aspect—even though it’s third by population, it holds the highest number of prisoners in the world.

In the present article, we’ll examine this phenomenon in detail by looking at some key prison statistics. By doing so, we hope to shed light on certain trends, such as who is most susceptible to incarceration and why.

Scary Prison Facts (Editor’s Choice):

  • 45% of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.
  • The US holds more than 20% of the world’s prisoners.
  • Most developed countries incarcerate at 15% of the US rate.
  • 10.6 million jail admissions happen every year.
  • 57.7% of federal prisoners are white.
  • The US has more than 2 million prisoners, with 600,000 entering prisons yearly.
  • At present, 45 prisoners have a federal death sentence imposed.

Prison Statistics by Crime, or What Gets People Jailed

Here, we’ll look at the top reasons for incarceration, that is, the kind of criminal activity most likely to land you in a usually rather inhospitable cell.

1. Nearly 15% of prisoners are serving time for murder.

(Source: ProCon)

Data on the US prison population by crime indicates that the largest number of inmates (177,700) are serving time for murder. It definitely sounds frightening, even though there’s a logical explanation. Murder generally carries the heaviest punishment, that is, the longest sentence. 

In other words, once a felon is convicted of murder and sent to prison, he’s staying in for a very long time. Therefore, even though other crimes might be more common in general, most prisoners come and go; the number of murderers, however, tends to stay high, because in any given period of time, fewer are released… some not at all.

2. The most common crime is larceny.

(Source: Pew Research Center)

Recent non-violent crimes statistics suggest that larceny is the most common transgression, at nearly five times the rate of any other, which equates to about 1,550 occurrences per 100,000 individuals. Second is burglary, at 350 per 100,000.

Violent crime, in comparison, is significantly less frequent. As stated in the previous paragraph, while murderers make up the largest percentage of the prison population, the actual incidence of murder is 5 per 100,000. In other words, it’s 310 times rarer than theft.

3. Only 0.25% of the prison population is employed through the PIECP.

(Source: National Correctional Industries Association)

A popular myth is that prisoners are the modern version of forced slave labor for the rich. However, that’s not exactly the case since the PIECP (Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program) currently employs only about 5,000 inmates. That’s less than a quarter of a percent of the US prison population. Furthermore, all of them are paid at least minimum wage, which doesn’t quite fit the definition of slavery.

The real problem is forced labor within prisons—foodservice and laundry, for instance, are usually entirely run by the prisoners themselves. Depending on the state, they are either forced to do this for free or paid as little as $0.86 per day (this is not a typo, it’s day, not hour!).

4. More than 20% of prisoners experience violence.

(Source: World Health Organization)  

Prison violence statistics reveal the shocking environment in which many inmates serve their sentences. 205 out of every 1,000 prisoners experience violence from fellow inmates, while almost 25% are subjected to violence from staff.

Furthermore, up to 5% of male and 25% of female inmates experience sexual assault while incarcerated. 7% of males and 8% of females have been sexually violated by members of prison staff.

Prison Demographics, or Who Commits the Most Crimes

The latest data on prison demographics based on gender, ethnicity, race, and other relevant criteria enables us to gain a better understanding of how the American penal system works. In this section, we’ll focus on some distressing prison facts about who commits the most crimes… or at least who gets punished most.

5. 93.5% of federal inmates are male.

(Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons)

This means that 142,888 men and only 9,940 women are currently serving time in federal prisons.

Still an overwhelming majority, the percentage of male inmates across all US jails and prisons is similar, albeit a touch lower at 89.7%.

6. The female prisoner population has been on the rise for the last two decades.

(Source: Prison Studies)

US prison demographics show that while only ~8% of inmates were women at the turn of the century, that percentage has shifted and now stands at 10.3%. This means a change from 158,629 to 211,375 female inmates.

The female population rate, which shows how many individuals are incarcerated per 100,000 of the national population, has also gone up—from 55.9 to 64.3, though that’s still only about a tenth of the national average. All in all, women are still about ten times less likely to be imprisoned.

7. Prison overcrowding led to four times more COVID cases.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Even a quick glimpse of prisons’ overcrowding statistics is sufficient to see just how bad the situation is. Almost every state prison is operating at 75% of its capacity or higher, with certain states such as Montana at 120%. Even federal prisons are struggling, with stats suggesting they’re currently running at about 103% of their normal capacity. The stories about prisoners sleeping in hallways might be true, after all.

Overcrowding has become an even bigger problem since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. The prison population has seen four times more COVID cases per capita compared to the general US population; the mortality rate has also been twice as high.

8. Black Americans are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans.

(Source: The Sentencing Project)

Statistics on prisoners by race show that despite making up only 12% of the American population, black people constitute a third of the prison population. This means that 1 in every 81 black Americans is serving time at a state prison at this very moment.

Furthermore, data suggests that one out of three black men in the US is likely to become imprisoned at some point in his life. The national average in this regard is one in nine.

Certain states, like California, Maine, and Wisconsin maintain a ratio of over 9:1 black to white inmates.

9. Imprisonment rates have declined since the noughties by up to 30%.

(Source: Pew Research Center)

Yes, prisons are overcrowded, but not quite as overcrowded as they were two decades ago. United States incarceration statistics reveal a hopeful trend—the discrepancy in the incarceration rates of people of color compared to white individuals has also started to narrow. Black adults are now 31% less likely to become imprisoned compared to before; Hispanics are 25% less likely, and white people—14%.

10. Asians and Asian-Americans are the least likely to end up in prison.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Reading through reports concerning the demographics of the prison population, we couldn’t help but notice that Asians were usually completely ignored. So we dug deeper and found out the reason why that is—it’s because they’re the only group less likely to go behind bars than white people. And it’s not a marginal difference, either, it’s a disparity of one to four!

In other words, there are so few incarcerated Asians and Asian-Americans relative to other racial groups, that most studies apparently don’t even bother to consider them. Case in point—only 1.5% of all federal prisoners are Asian. That’s 2,225 people out of ~150,000 total.

Drug Offense Statistics, or Why Knowing Your State is Crucial

Drugs are not created equal—some are not only more dangerous than others, but can certainly get you in more trouble, too.

That said, what will or won’t land you in a jail cell varies significantly by state. While many states have legalized, or at least decriminalized the possession and use of lighter drugs such as marijuana, others haven’t. In those places, there are still hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in prison.

Below, we’ll look at the details.

(Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons)

What are most people in prison for? Well, in all honesty, it depends whether we’re talking about local, state, or federal institutions. The latter is perhaps the most shocking one—as of February 2022, there are 64,166 inmates serving time in federal prisons across the USA for drug offenses. That’s nearly half of all federal inmates. 

Considering there are multiple states where marijuana use has not yet been decriminalized, this also means that thousands are likely incarcerated because they smoked weed! Guess you gotta make sure you know your state-specific laws…

12. 450,000 people are incarcerated due to drug offenses at any given time.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

If we count inmates locked up in federal prisons as well as those kept in state ones and local jails, the number of drug offenders jumps up to nearly half a million. It gets even worse when you realize that’s just the non-violent cases.

“Fun” fact: About one-fifth of the entire US prison population is serving drug-related sentences.

13. Only 4% of confined youth are held for drug offenses.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

There are currently 52,000 non-adults imprisoned throughout the US, with about a tenth of those held in institutions for adults. Looking at prisoner statistics by crime, it’s immediately clear that most are guilty of robbery (or burglary), with the various kinds of assault coming in second.

The popular thesis of young people doing more and more drugs, however, seems to be untrue—only 2,100 are serving time due to drug usage or trafficking.

Most drug offenders in prison are Americans in their twenties and thirties. 

Incarceration Statistics or How Does the US Stack Up Against the World

We’ll say it again—the US is a world leader in many regards, most of them commendable; others, however, not so much. Hosting the largest prison population worldwide is no reason to brag, but it’s important to analyze the situation objectively.

In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, some say crime is on the rise, others that the US authorities are simply more effective than those in other countries. We’ll leave opinions and all matters subjective aside, though, and look at proper statistics… at least those tend to be mostly impartial.

14. The world prison population is ~10.35 million.

(Source: The United States Department of Justice)

This is difficult to calculate precisely because not all countries release accurate (and trustworthy) information, and multiple jurisdictions aren’t recognized internationally. For instance, China reports 1.6 million prisoners, but there is an unknown number of pre-trial detainees in police facilities.

Data for North Korea, as you probably expected, is not available. 

Still, assuming the aforementioned number is true (since it’s about as accurate of an approximation as we can get), that means 0.13% of the world population is in prison at the moment. In other words, the worldwide incarceration rate is 144 per 100,000.

15. The US prison population in 2022 is ~2.1 million.

(Source: Journal of Cybersecurity Intelligence & Cybercrime)

There is no official data available for 2022, as of yet, but the number of incarcerated Americans over the past two decades has stayed at a fairly consistent 2.2 to 2.1 million people.

Since a peak of over 2.3 million in 2008, mass incarceration has been somewhat toned down, with the latest prison statistics indicating there are currently slightly over 2.1 million prisoners.

The average prison sentence is 2.6 years. Logically, murder and other violent offenses are the ones with the longest median time served. Though, prison sentences for cybercrimes, especially frauds and identity thefts, were also found to be much lengthier.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the US still makes up a fifth (~20%) of the global prison population, even though it only accounts for 4.2% of the world’s total population.

16. There are 10.6 million jail admissions every year.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

This means that every year people will go to jail 10.6 million times. It doesn’t necessarily have to be unique individuals—in some cases, the same person could end up in jail multiple times in a single year if their offenses are minor enough.

Furthermore, while felons come and go, prison statistics show that jails tend to contain around 731,000 people at any given time. That’s 0.22% of the US population.

17. In the 2020 presidential elections, 5.1 million people couldn’t vote.

(Source: The Sentencing Project)

In the US, felons generally lose their right to vote for the duration of their sentence, but this varies by state.

In most states, they regain their suffrage upon release or after probation; though, in two (Kentucky and Virginia) they do not. Instead, former prisoners have to submit individual petitions for the restoration of their right to vote.

Lastly, in Maine and Vermont, there is no disenfranchisement, meaning that inmates are still able to vote while incarcerated.

According to the latest inmates statistics, during the 2020 election, 5.1 million people (about 2.3% of the voting population, or 1 in 44 adult Americans) couldn’t exercise their right to vote.

For the sake of comparison, we’ll mention that most of the developed world, including almost all European countries, have far fewer restrictions in this regard.

Wrap Up

In a perfect world, prisons wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and penal institutions have their place. Still, as society has evolved, it has also tried to change them from places of detention and retribution to sanctuaries of rehabilitation. In this regard, the US has a lot of work left to do.

The practice of mass incarceration, however waning in recent years, has persistently kept prisons overcrowded. This, in turn, engenders a wealth of issues, which remain mostly unresolved.

We meant for our collection of prison statistics to elucidate this matter and bring it to your attention in a striking but objective manner. After all, the first step to solving any problem is becoming aware of its existence. We hope we succeeded!.

What percentage of the population is in prison?
About 0.13% of the world population is currently imprisoned, which amounts to 10.35 million prisoners worldwide. The incarceration rate is 144 per 100,000.
What percentage of the US population is in prison?
0.64% of the US population is currently in prison, or about 2,100,000 people. The incarceration rate in America is several orders of magnitude higher than the worldwide average—698 per 100,000.
What percentage of prisoners are murderers?
In the US, 14.2%. This is also the most numerous group of prisoners. For more details, refer to our full prison facts section above.
Nick Galov
Nick Galov

Unaware that life beyond the internet exists, Nick is poking servers and control panels, playing with WordPress add-ons, and helping people get the hosting that suits them.