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Which States Put the Most People in Prison?


The United States has the highest percentage of its population in prison in the world, ahead even of countries like China and North Korea that are notorious for locking away political dissenters. All in all, close to 1.6 million people – that’s 1 in 200 Americans – are currently serving time in a federal or local prison.

The Economics of the American Prison System

Of course, one consequence of a federal system is that the process of justice is not the same across the country. Different states have criminal codes that are inclined to be harsher or more lenient towards certain offenses or circumstances, not to mention the regional biases the people who make up police forces and courts may have. So which states are most likely to put a convicted offender in prison?


We calculated the percentage of each state’s population that’s incarcerated- dividing the total population by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ data on total number of prisoners in each state’s prisons. The South dominates this list, conforming to stereotypes about “hanging judges” and chain gangs, but there are a few surprising entries as well.

The Ten States With the Highest Percentage of People in Prison

Which States Put the Most People in Prison?


The Pelican State was once infamous as a haven for pirates. The colonial authorities harshly punished any buccaneer they caught. That tradition continues today, as Louisiana is the state with the greatest percentage of its population in prison. Out of 4,533,372 people, 39,710 are in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This results in a 0.88 percent incarceration rate.


Remote Alaska has by far the least dense population of any state, with just 1.3 people per square mile of area. That’s about a fifth of the next-least dense, Wyoming. Nevertheless, Alaska imprisons the second-most people per capita, with 5,412 people in prison and a population of 710,231 for a 0.76 percent incarceration rate. Alaska also has the most female prisoners per capita of any state.


Yes, this tiny mid-Atlantic state locks up a surprisingly high number of people per capita. Delaware has an area of only 1,982 square miles, but has a population of 897,934 and 6,739 prisoners, for 0.75 percent of the population incarcerated (and 3.4 prisoners per square mile on average).


Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with a poverty rate that hovers around 20 percent and a median household income of only about $37,000. Out of a population of 2,967,297, prisoners number 21,386, or 0.75 percent of all people.


The Sooner State has a population of 3,751,351, two-thirds of whom live in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metropolitan areas. About 25,977 of those people are in prison, which represents a 0.69 percent incarceration rate.


It seems inevitable that Texas would make this list, and some may be surprised that it came in as low in the top ten as it did. Texan courts sometimes still favor “frontier justice” – 278 Texas inmates are due for the death penalty, the third-highest among all states behind only California and Florida. Texas has consistently also far and away led the states in number of executions per year, with 16 prisoners put to death in 2013. Out of a population of 25,145,561, Texas has imprisoned 172,224 people or 0.68 percent of the state population.


Another of the many southern states on the list, the Yellowhammer State has a population of 4,779,736 and 32,270 prisoners. This means 0.68 percent of the population is in prison.


Maricopa County – home of Arizona’s largest city and state capital, Phoenix – has its police department headed by Joe Arpaio, sometimes nicknamed “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He and his department have been criticized for aggressive and allegedly abusive police and prison practices. Arizona has 6,392,017 people, 40,020 of whom are in prison, for an incarceration rate of 0.63 percent.


The Peach State is known as the setting for the classic film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns, a World War I veteran who escaped from a brutal prison sentence of ten years’ hard labor for a robbery. Of the 9,687,653 people in Georgia, 55,944 people are in prison, meaning 0.58 percent of the population is incarcerated.


The list ends where it begins – in the South. The Natural State imprisons 16,108 out of its population of 2,915,918, which makes its incarceration rate 0.55 percent.

The Ten States With the Lowest Percentage of People in Prison

The states with the lowest percentage of the population in prison include: New York, New Jersey, Washington, Nebraska, Utah, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Maine has the lowest percentage of population in prison at 0.16%. That is 2,145 of the more than 1.3 million people who live in that state.

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Photo Credit: flickr