Expert Commentary

Prisoners in the U.S.: Research on inmate population trends, demographics

A collection of government reports and academic papers that help paint a picture of the men, women and children in custody nationwide. We included a few research articles that look specifically at transgender inmates.


The United States’ system of incarceration is vast, with 122 federal prisons and thousands of state prisons, private prisons, local jails and juvenile correctional facilities. At the end of 2015, an estimated 6.7 million people — about 1 in 37 adults — were under some form of correctional supervision, according to a December 2016 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Most of those individuals were on criminal probation. But about 2.2 million adults were living behind bars, comprising the world’s largest reported incarcerated population. An analysis from the  World Prison Research Programme at Birkbeck, University of London shows that China and Brazil rank No. 2 and 3, respectively.

Journalists who cover criminal justice follow prison trends and new research on topics such as racial disparities in sentencing, inmate health and programs aimed at reducing recidivism.  But really, journalists on many beats write at least occasionally about some facet of the correctional system. County government reporters, for example, write about the funding and operation of county jails. Education reporters write about campus crime and the unique challenges of serving students whose parents are incarcerated.

To help with this work, Journalist’s Resource has pulled together government reports and academic papers that help paint a picture of the men, women and children in custody nationwide. While this collection focuses on inmate demographics and prison population trends, we have included a few research articles that look specifically at transgender inmates.

For those who are interested, Journalist’s Resource has also written about research on solitary confinement, why men commit more crime than women,  how the economy affects ex-cons’ odds of returning to jail and inmates’ relationships with prison staff.


Prison population, demographics

Inmate statistics: An interactive collection of data and graphics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that looks at inmate gender, age, citizenship, race, offense type and other details.

Juveniles in corrections: This collection of reports from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examines juvenile offenders from a range of angles, including the proportion who are female or are being held for violent offenses.

“Prisoners In 2015”
Carson, E. Ann; Anderson, Elizabeth. U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2016.
Summary: “Presents final counts of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities at year-end 2015, including admissions, releases, noncitizen inmates, and inmates age 17 or younger. The report describes prisoner populations by jurisdiction, most serious offense and demographic characteristics. Selected findings on prison capacity and prisoners held in private prisons, local jails, and the U.S. military and territories are also included. Findings are based on data from BJS’s National Prisoner Statistics program, which collects data from state departments of correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

“Veterans In Prison And Jail, 2011–2012”
Bronson, Jennifer; Carson, E. Ann; Noonan, Margaret E., Report from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2015.
Summary: “Presents counts and rates of veterans in state and federal prison and local jail in 2011 and 2012. This report describes incarcerated veterans by demographic characteristics, military characteristics, and disability and mental health status. It describes current offense, sentencing and criminal history characteristics by veteran status. It also examines combat experience associated with lifetime mental health disorders among incarcerated veterans. Findings are based on data from the National Inmate Survey, conducted between February 2011 and May 2012. Data from previous BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] surveys of inmates in prison and jail are used to establish historical trends regarding incarcerated veterans.”

“The Growth in the Elderly Inmate Prison Population: The Role of Determinate Punishment Policies”
Scaggs, Samuel J.A.; Bales, William D. Justice Research and Policy, 2015. DOI: 10.1177/1525107115599784.
Abstract: “State and federal prison systems have experienced an unprecedented and accelerating growth in their elderly inmate populations over the past three decades. While aging inmates have significant operational and cost implications for correctional systems, a clear understanding of the nature and mechanisms behind the growth in this special population does not exist. This article examines the trends in the older inmate population in Florida from 1980 to 2010 to assess whether significant changes in the punishment policies in the state over this period have contributed to this population’s growth and to better understand the composition of this special inmate group. We present annual data over a 31-year period to describe the trends in prison admissions, releases, stock populations and the average length of stay for the age-groups of 49 or younger versus 50 and older. This trend analysis against a backdrop of changes in punishment structure over time will inform policy makers about how trends in demographic populations like the elderly inmate population in Florida have coincided with shifts in sentencing practices.”

“Race, Incarceration, and Motherhood: Spoiled Identity Among Rural White Mothers in Prison”
Easterling, Beth A.; Feldmeyer, Ben. The Prison Journal, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0032885517692791.
Abstract: “Extant research on maternal incarceration has focused either on mothers as a whole (not disaggregated by race) or on the experiences of urban Black mothers, with relatively little focused attention on the experiences of their White counterparts. This study expands research on incarceration and its effects using qualitative interviews to explore how prison shapes identity construction among an understudied population — rural White mothers. Mothers in our sample expressed histories of family problems and drug use. Uniquely, we explore findings from a framework of ‘spoiled identity’ for both the mothers themselves and their children as a result of their incarceration.”

“Jails in Indian Country, 2015”
Minton, Todd D. Report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2016.
Summary: “Describes jails, confinement facilities, detention centers, and other correctional facilities operated by tribal authorities or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This report presents trends in Indian Country jails, including inmate characteristics and offense type; midyear, peak, and average daily population; and admissions and expected average length of stay at admission. It provides data on rated capacity, facility crowding and jail staffing. Deaths in custody are also included.”

“Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults: Their Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training”
Rampey, Bobby D.; et al. Report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, November 2016.
Summary: This report focuses on the life skills and experiences of adults in state, federal and private prisons nationwide. It includes data on employment prior to incarceration, prison jobs and educational attainment in prison. The report also presents results from assessments of prisoners’ cognitive skills in areas such as reading and problem solving as measured by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).


Transgender inmates

“Transgender Inmates in Prisons: A Review of Applicable Statutes and Policies”
Routh, Douglas; et al. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, May 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X15603745.
Abstract: “Transgender inmates provide a conundrum for correctional staff, particularly when it comes to classification, victimization and medical and health issues. Using LexisNexis and WestLaw and state Department of Corrections (DOC) information, we collected state statutes and DOC policies concerning transgender inmates. We utilized academic legal research with content analysis to determine whether a statute or policy addressed issues concerning classification procedures, access to counseling services, the initiation and continuation of hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery. We found that while more states are providing either statutory or policy guidelines for transgender inmates, a number of states are lagging behind and there is a shortage of guidance dealing with the medical issues related to being transgender.”

“Agnes Goes to Prison: Gender Authenticity, Transgender Inmates in Prisons for Men, and Pursuit of ‘The Real Deal’”
Jenness, Valerie; Fenstermaker, Sarah. Gender & Society, February 2014. DOI:
Abstract: “Historically developed along gender lines and arguably the most sex-segregated of institutions, U.S. prisons are organized around the assumption of a gender binary. In this context, the existence and increasing visibility of transgender prisoners raise questions about how gender is accomplished by transgender prisoners in prisons for men. This analysis draws on official data and original interview data from 315 transgender inmates in 27 California prisons for men to focus analytic attention on the pursuit of ‘the real deal’ — a concept we develop to reference a dynamic related to how gender is accomplished by transgender inmates. Specifically, among transgender inmates in prisons for men, there is competition for the attention and affection of ‘real men’ in prisons: the demonstrable and well-articulated desire to secure standing as “the best girl” in sex-segregated institutional environments. Our empirical examination sheds light on the gender order that underpins prison life, the lived experience of gender and sexuality for transgender inmates in prisons for men, and how that experience reveals new aspects of the workings of gender accountability.”

“Fundamental Principles Inherent in the Comprehensive Care of Transgender Inmates”
Simopoulos, Eugene F.; Khin, Eindra Khin. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, March 2014.
Summary: “The transgender inmate population presents unique challenges and opportunities in medical, psychiatric, and correctional systems of care worldwide. We present a review of both case law and efforts within the medical and psychiatric communities to address transgender needs more consistently over the past few decades. In addition, we discuss the standardized implementation of core principles within the correctional system that should provide comprehensive care to transgender inmates.”

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