World Prison Population: Is America Really the Worst?

distribution of world's prisoners

(Published on Huffington Post)

It is estimated that there are more than 11 million people held in penal institutions throughout the world -- a number that includes both those currently in prison and pre-trial detainees who are waiting to find out if they are going to have to spend a portion of their life behind bars. Of those, according to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 2.2 million of them are incarcerated in the U.S. 

It is widely reported that even though the U.S. only houses 2% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners, making us the largest incarcerator in the world. 

But does America really imprison more people, per capita, than any other nation in the world? Here are the numbers:

Prison Population Rate (per 100,000 citizens) 
1. Seychelles: 799 (1 in 125 citizens)
2. United States: 698 (1 in 143)
3. St. Kitts & Nevis: 607 (1 in 164)
4. Turkmenistan: 583 (1 in 171)
5. U.S. Virgin Islands: 542 (1 in 184)
6. Cuba: 510 (1 in 196)
7. El Salvador: 492 (1 in 203)
8. Guam: 469 (1 in 213)
9. Thailand: 461 (1 in 217)
10. Belize: 449 (1 in 223)

Surprisingly, the U.S. is not, technically speaking, the most prolific incarcerator in the world. Rather, Seychelles, a small chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, gets that distinction. In fact, several island governments appear to have a disproportionate amount of prisoners when compared to their population -- some which don't actually even total 100,000 residents. Seychelles, for instance, only has 92,000 residents, but 735 prisoners, not exactly a sufficient amount to base comparisons on.

So where does the U.S. rank when it comes to large, civilized nations?
1. United States: 698 (1 in 143)
2. Russia: 445 (1 in 224)
3. Brazil: 301 (1 in 332)
4. Australia: 151 (1 in 662)
5. Spain: 139 (1 in 719)
6. China: 119 (1 in 840)
7. Canada: 106 (1 in 943)
8. France: 100 (1 in 1,000)

The United States is indeed number one amongst larger civilized nations. In fact, amongst those nations, there are only seven that incarcerate more than 1 in 1,000 of its citizens. At 1 in 143, America easily has the distinction of being the worst when in comes to the amount of our citizens that we put in prison - a third more than the next closest. 

In other words, amongst the handful of great nations in the world, we stick out like a giant sore thumb... certainly nothing to be proud of.

* Statistics provided by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (

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