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Behind bars: Rethinking the morality and economics of prisons

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” The words of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa and a man who spent 27 years locked up as a political prisoner, ring true even in the modern age.

Therefore, the question is: how do the nations of today present themselves when put under the scrutiny of these words?

Prison Population Rate by per-capita comparisons by country (Sentencing Project)

The US has the highest number of prisoners in the whole world with over 2 million people incarcerated. Even when accounting for the large population of the country, it comes out on top with an astounding 655 prisoners per 100,000 people. The next more economically developed country on this list, the Russian Federation, only ranks 19th and has an incarceration rate that is a little over half of that of the US (368 per 100,000).

Such a large amount of inmates also entails a lot of costs. In 2018, the United States spent an astonishing $81 billion on correctional facilities. This figure does not include all costs associated with prisons as it is “missing the policing and court costs, and all of the other costs that families have to pay to support their incarcerated loved ones.” In reality, it is even more expensive to keep these people in prison.

However, if $250 more in taxes per capita makes the country a safer place by keeping criminals off the streets, then both the higher incarceration rate and the large spending it entails are justified. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. For example, Finland has the lowest prison population rate in Europe with only 51 prisoners per 100,000 people, yet their homicide rate is one third that of the US. Furthermore, Japan has an even lower incarceration rate (41 per 100,000) and their homicide rate in 2017 was less than a quarter of a person per 100,000. This means that more of the population in jail does not necessarily keep the rest of the population safer nor deter criminal actions.

Last Monday (11/11/19), the US state of Oklahoma passed an amendment through legislation that resulted in the largest one-day prison release in recorded US history. 462 non-violent offenders were let out early after their crimes were recategorized from a felony to a misdemeanour. In addition to bringing unexpected joy to 462 people and their families, this prison release also saved the state of Oklahoma an estimated $11.9 million.

If the rest of the US were to follow suit and release all of its 452,900 non-violent drug offenders it could save 100 times more. The country would have $1.1 billion of additional government spending that could go towards education, health care, or further improving its prison system.

Moreover, the monetary cost of prisons is not the only thing to be considered, there is also the question of the human cost. Based on the data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 4,980 prisoners died while in jail in 2014. 40.3 percent of these deaths occurred within 7 days of admission. Additionally, the suicide rate in local jails was 50 out of 100,000 prisoners.

These statistics show that there is a flaw within the system. Prisons are an institution meant to punish and rehabilitate people for the wrong they have done to society, not cause their death.

However, 29 out of 50 states in the US and at least 91 countries around the world would have to disagree with this statement, as they still employ the death penalty. Putting people on death row is a controversial subject, and this is largely because it is an irreversible type of punishment. However, despite the moral question of whether it is right for us to decide on the life of another human being, there is another one: is the death penalty the most economical choice?

A comparison of capital case costs in Maryland highlights death sentencing is almost 3x more costly than in cases where the death sentence was not sought.

The alternative to execution is a life sentence without parole. Despite the obviously high bill involved in this type of punishment, it has been found that imprisonment for life is actually at least 18 times cheaper than executing somebody. This might sound counterintuitive, however, but the cost arises from the bureaucracy implemented as a fail-safe against any mistakes in a conviction.

Nonetheless, if this ensures that all persons executed are guilty, then the costs are justified as they guarantee that these criminals will never be let back on the streets. Unfortunately, no process is perfect, this being no exception. It has been found that 4 percent of the defendants put on death row in the US are innocent. This means that 1 out of 25 people sentenced to death are being killed due to a mistake.

This number is scary because rather than showing how the “lowest” citizens are treated, it shows how the “highest” can be irreversibly mistreated. This is why the US and these 91 other countries should ask themselves whether this is the face they want to show to the rest of the world and, more importantly, its own citizens.

These shocking statistics are best exemplified by the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, a man from Alabama who was wrongfully convicted of two murders in 1985 and held on death row for 28 years. In 2015, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction on appeal and his charges were dropped after doubt was cast on the validity of forensic evidence of a gun – the only evidence in his first trial.

Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured right) was exonerated after 28 years on death row (Image Credit; Equal Justice Initiative)

Hinton may have been released, but his conviction and wrongful sentencing highlights a broken and often discriminatory justice system weighted against minorities and the poorest in society.

Are all these costs, both financial and human, really worth it or should something be changed? Is this the answer we want to give when put under the scrutiny of the words of Nelson Mandela?


Written by Alexandra Keller


BBC News:

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Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Center of American Progress:


Death Penalty Focus:

Death Penalty ProCon:


New York Times:

Prison Policy:

Prison Studies:

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The Guardian:

The Sentencing Project:


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