What Life Is Like For The 2 Million People Behind Bars In America

los angeles county jail inmate prisonAn inmate stands in his cell at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, California October 3, 2012.

The United States keeps 2.26 million people behind bars, by far the world’s highest incarceration rate.

So many prisoners are expensive, costing taxpayers $68 billion annually.

So many prisoners are also exceeding available infrastructure, with capacity crises in Texas, California, Arizona, and other states. The war on drugs has quadrupled the number of prisoners behind bars since 1980. Nonviolent offenders now make up 60% of America’s prison population.

Overcrowding has led to rising levels of violence and unsafe and uncomfortable living conditions.

An unprecedented 2.2 million Americans live behind bars.

The average inmate serves a three-year sentence — nine months longer than they did in 1990.

The number of inmates serving time for drug offenses has exploded, with drug offenders making up 48% of federal inmates and 17% of state inmates.

Experts estimate that if state and federal prisons released half of all their non-violent offenders, it would save the government nearly $17 billion per year.

Prison isn't all terrible. Inmates typically spend most of the morning and early afternoon working, either inside the prison as janitorial or kitchen staff or outside picking up trash, working on prison farms, or making licence plates.

Prisoners in minimum- or medium-security prisons usually get about an hour a day before dinner to exercise in the prison yard, watch TV, socialize, or call their families, and depending on the prison, another hour or two of free time before lights out.

Many prisons and jails give inmates an hour in the evenings for self-help groups, GED or college classes, religious services, or drug treatment programs.

But let's be honest: Prison is unpleasant. And it's reflected in the number of mentally ill inmates. A 2006 study found that half of all inmates have mental health issues, at rates of two to four times the normal population.

Rape is a terrifying reality in prison. A 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found 9.6% of state prisoners had been sexually victimized at least once while they were incarcerated.

So is violence. The vast majority of prison gang members say they joined because they were afraid of other inmates, according to a 2010 study.

Although some prisons are designed to give inmates some space and privacy, others are forced to get creative to deal with overcrowding.

The worst is in California, where a federal judge recently threatened Gov. Jerry Brown with contempt of court to get him to fix the state's rising inmate population.

California prison overcrowding has increased even as the state built roughly one new prison per year, at the cost of $100 million each, over the past 23 years.

One of the worst prison riots in American history took place here at the California Institution for Men in 2009, when an 11-hour riot injured 250 people. Designed to hold 2,976 inmates, the prison contained nearly twice that number.

Tent City currently houses more than 2,000 people, most of whom are waiting for their trials to start. Temperatures inside the uncooled tents pictured here have gone as high as 145 degrees in the summer.

Nationwide, prisons spend an average of $2.40 a day to feed inmates, but here in Tent City, Sheriff Joe Arpaio serves the cheapest prison meals in the country, at 15 to 40 cents per meal for each inmate. He only serves two meals a day to cut down on labour costs.

There are about 80,000 prisoners being held in some form of solitary confinement nationwide, including roughly 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons, according to the most recent statistics.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in all jails, accounting for nearly a third of all deaths. More than half of those suicides occur in solitary confinement.

You've seen what normal prison life is like. Now learn about the country's most dangerous prison gangs.

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