Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

By Eric Stirgus January 14, 2013

Does the U.S. have the highest percentage of people in prison?

A Georgia congressman recently penned a letter to an American legend that sparked some conversation among the PolitiFact Georgia staff.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat who lives in DeKalb County, decried the large number of Americans incarcerated, among other things, in a message to Frederick Douglass, the famed 19th-century abolitionist, author and activist. The letter was written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, written by President Abraham Lincoln to end slavery.

"[W]e see America's prison population exploding, with America having a greater percentage of its people behind bars than any other nation in the world!" wrote Johnson, a former magistrate court judge.

PolitiFact Georgia examined a similar claim by Johnson before. The congressman claimed last year that the United States imprisons more than any nation in the world. PolitiFact Georgia found Johnson was likely correct that the U.S. has more people behind bars than any other country, but America does have one of the largest populations in the world, so it’s not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. Our research showed there are probably some nations with a higher percentage of people in prison, so we rated Johnson’s claim Half True.

We were slightly surprised by this claim floating around again. We wondered whether there was anything new to consider on this issue since we fact-checked it in May. This time, Johnson was talking about the percentage of people in jail, not the total prison population as he did last year. We decided to take a look.

Last year, the estimates we found all said there were about 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons. That’s about 730 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans. The estimate remained about the same.

The International Centre for Prison Studies, based at the University of Essex in Great Britain, keeps the most detailed information about prison populations worldwide. Its World Prison Population List is widely used in studies and by reporters.

In the report we reviewed last year, the U.S. had the highest percentage of its citizens in prison among nations where the ICPS could verify such information. Russia and Rwanda ranked second and third, respectively. Both countries were well behind the United States. Russia had 598 people in its prisons per 100,000 citizens.

As for China, the most recent ICPS report states that nation has at least 1.6 million people in its prisons. The number may be as much as 2.3 million if you include an estimated 650,000 held in detention centers. Using the larger estimate, that would be 170 people per 100,000 Chinese citizens, which is far lower than the U.S.

At the time, we found it was possible that there were two other countries that put a greater percentage of people in prison: Cuba and North Korea. Has that changed?

First, let’s look at Cuba. A 2003 study reported in The Miami Herald found an estimated 100,000 inmates in 200 prisons and labor camps spread across the Caribbean island. Several prominent human rights organizations did not dispute the figure. In 1995, the United Nations estimated there were "between 100,000 and 200,000 prisoners in all categories,'' the Herald reported.
"If accurate, the figure of 100,000 inmates in an island of nearly 11.3 million people would give Cuba 888 inmates per 100,000 people, far ahead of the United States," the Herald article said.

Johnson’s office sent us information that suggests the number of prisoners on the island may be much lower. The most recent ICPS report shows the prison population was 510 people per 100,000 residents as of May.

In May 2011, Amnesty International compiled a report on North Korea and concluded there were an estimated 200,000 people being held in political prisoner camps. The estimate was based on satellite images and eyewitness accounts. That equates to 813 per 100,000, higher than the U.S. The ICPS has similar totals for North Korea, citing the South Korean National Human Rights Commission. North Korea’s total cannot be independently verified.

"Otherwise, without any firm, recent, quantified statistics involving North Korean figures, it is very difficult to evaluate whether the statement that they have higher incarceration rates is accurate," said Andy Phelan, a spokesman for Johnson. "It is, however, entirely accurate to state that the United States has the highest reported incarceration rate, as well as the highest total prison population, based on the most recent studies."

The United States has the highest percentage of people in its prisons of any nation that can be verified. From the most recent numbers we’ve seen, the U.S. may have a higher percentage than one nation (Cuba) we thought had more of its people in prison.

We’ll give Johnson a higher grade this time on the Truth-O-Meter but still leave room for another country (North Korea, perhaps) that may have a higher percentage of its people in prison. Our rating: Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Eric Stirgus

Does the U.S. have the highest percentage of people in prison?

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up