Mass Incarceration and Prison Gerrymandering, By Dr. Leonard Sowah

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In the last 2 decades most new jail and prison developments in the US a country with one of the highest prison populations in the world are in rural and suburban districts. Data reported by the London Institute of Criminal Policy Research reports our incarceration rate as 655 per 100,000 the highest rate in the world similar to countries like El Salvador, Thailand and Turkmenistan at 618, 553 and 552 per 100,000 persons respectively. When considering how many of our citizens we keep locked up, our compatriots are countries like, Turkmenistan, El Salvador and Thailand. The closest developed democratic country on this list is Australia at number 92 with an incarceration rate of 171 per 100,000 persons, countries like China reported 118 per 100,000 but I doubt that data includes Uighurs and other minorities in re-education camps which the Chinese government uses to segregate and punish individuals who do not fit the country’s expected cultural belief system.

Top 10 countries with the worst incarceration rates

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Source: World Prison Brief

US prisons are filled with mostly non-violent offenders. The belief that high rates of incarceration ensure public safety is common; unfortunately real world data does not support this claim. During the late 90s to early 2000s New York, New Jersey, and California significantly decreased their prison populations through multiple policy initiatives. In all three states, violent crime rates decreased more than they did nationwide. So even though some politicians would want us to believe that locking up a lot of people in Jails and prisons would make us safer, that is false

Most of the increase in our prison populations occurred only in the past 40 years, with about 500% increase in prison populations. In our federal penitentiaries only 7.9 % of offenders are violent offenders with 47.3% being drug related offenders and 17.0% with weapons related charges. In 1980 drug related offenses accounted for 21.5% of all federal prisoners this has more than doubled to 47.3% in 2017.


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Graph showing the  rise in Prison populations post 1970 related to Nixon’s war on drugs

Within the prison system inmates are sometimes relocated to communities that could be many 100s of miles away from their prior residence. In fact some inmates in federal penitentiaries could actually end up in states that they have never lived in. Most of these individuals are housed in facilities that are very far from their families or anyone they may know. This system is one that has been shown to tend to cause significant instability and difficulties to the families of such inmates and has been shown to negatively impact family cohesion and prison recidivism.

The situation becomes even more concerning when one factors in the blanket disenfranchisement of these prison populations, and considers that these mostly minority inmates are being relocated into communities that may have a completely different demographic from themselves and may have different political, social and civil priorities, Though the prison populations may count in the determination of congressional district maps and assignment of electoral college votes most of these individuals have no voting rights and cannot vote in state, national or even local elections in some cases. This issue was debated in the house and was opposed by most republicans in Congress, two bills HR 1 and HR 794 were passed in March 2019, but are most likely going to die in committee in the current US Senate.


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Graphic: Jiachuan Wu / NBC News,           Source: Prison Policy Initiative

One other problematic issue in our current prison system is the use of private for profit prisons. This new industry spawned by the war on drugs a political move initiated by Nixon in the 70s poses an adverse incentive through lobbying and sometimes outright criminal acts such as the Pennsylvania kids for cash deal to maintain our high prison populations.

Since 1980 most prisons built have been built in non-urban metro areas this compares to less than 30% prior to this time. In most rural communities with economic decline prisons are becoming an attractive means of boosting their economy. The stack differences in the race demographics of these rural communities and the close 53% Black & Latino prison populations has been a source of concern for many. One New York State legislator Daniel Feldman once observed that “When legislators cry ‘lock ’em up’ they often mean ‘Lock ’em up in my district!.'”

There are many who want to stop this age old practice of counting prisoners in the communities where the prisons are located and many states are working on reversing the disenfranchisement of offenders. Whilst many can understand restricting the civil rights of some egregious offenders, this practice affects mostly non-violent offenders and is usually carried on beyond the prison sentence. In states like Florida one needs to apply for reinstatement which requires approval by the governor.

Americans need to be more aware and involved in efforts to change these systems that continue to dilute the effectiveness of our democracy by the limitation and appropriation of the civil rights of some segments of our population.

 If we allow these practices to continue our democracy will be eroded into a den of oligarchs and plutocrats. Congress needs to work to protect the civil rights of all Americans.

Dr. Leonard Sowah is an Internal Medicine Physician in Baltimore, Maryland



A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan