Following is the transcript of an audio news story written and produced by Drug War Facts Editor Doug McVay for the Drug Truth Network. It was broadcast on April 6, 2013, as a 420 Drug War News segment.
Everyone by now has heard that the US is the world's biggest jailer, with more people behind bars than any other country.
We've all heard it. Is it true?
The International Centre for Prison Studies, a partner of the University of Essex in the UK, researches global incarceration and regularly publishes the results. Their website at prisonstudies dot org even has a handy tool to make international comparisons easy.
The ICPS reports that in 2011, the US had a prison population of 2,239,751 – enough prisoners to put our nation at the top of the list. Next comes China, with a reported 1,640,000 prisoners. Seems pretty straightforward – except it's not as simple as that.
First, let's unpack the US data. The ICPS is actually lumping prisoners – that is, inmates serving time in prisons – with jail inmates. In the US, we report those numbers separately. That's how a prohibitionist can get away with claiming that few people are ever sent to prison for simple possession of marijuana. People serving time for that offense typically get put in jail, not prison. They're still incarcerated, behind bars, just technically they're not in prison.
Take away the 735,601 held in US jails in 2011, and the remaining US prison population is 1,504,150.
Now let's take a closer look at China.
The ICPS figure of 1,640,000 only represents sentenced prisoners in Chinese Ministry of Justice prisons. It does not include pre-trial detainees, nor does it include people held in administrative detention. In 2009, ICPS reports, the Chinese government admitted to holding more than 650,000 people in detention centers. If that figure held steady through 2012, that would mean a total of 2,300,000 behind bars in China.
So technically, China may actually be number one in terms of sheer numbers.
As far as incarceration rates are concerned however, the US does seem to be way on top. The ICPS web tool also allows comparison of incarceration rates. The US, at 716 inmates per 100,000 population, is well ahead of the next country on the list – the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, with an incarceration rate of 649 per 100,000. China, because of its massive population, has an official incarceration rate of only 121 per 100,000. Adding in those held in administrative detention raises the figure significantly yet it's still nowhere near the US rate.
So the answer is basically Yes. Yet really, it all depends on how you define terms and who you count.
At Drug War Facts dot org, we provide up to date data from the US and around the world, fully cited, with links to the original source material for most of the items. Knowledge is power, so get the facts.
For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay with Common Sense for Drug Policy and Drug War Facts.
This audio news story as well as many others are available through the Drug Truth Network's website, DrugTruth.net