Business Game Changers Radio with Sarah Westall: Mass Incarceration Problem? USA Has 5% of the World's Population and 25% of the World's Prisoners

  08/22/2016  12:00 pm PDT

No one can argue that the United States does not have a mass incarceration problem. Just by looking at the numbers it is obvious that something is out of whack. According to recent census data, the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but has a whopping 25% of the World’s Prisoners. The Institute of Criminal Policy Research further shows that out of 222 countries, the United States has the second highest rate in the world with an incarceration rate of 700 per 100,000. Half of the 222 countries surveyed had rates of 150 per 100,000 or less. In fact, the United States has 6 times the rate of Canada and 6 to 9 times the rate of European countries.


The astronomical growth has occurred in the last 3 to 4 decades. Back in the 60’s and early 70’s, our rate was in line with other developed countries in the world. In fact, we had a model system that other countries used as a benchmark for managing and upgrading their own systems.


Unfortunately, recent data makes you wonder what has happened in the United States. Has a state of chaos and criminality transformed our streets and institutions or do we inappropriately lock up citizens for petty crimes that other countries do not? After looking at the issue in more depth, it becomes apparent that it’s not so easy. Many factors contribute to the mess that we are in.


However, a promising sign towards changing the broken system has emerged. Both sides of the isle are in agreement that the justice system is broken and needs to be reformed. Having real consensus that there IS an issue is the first step towards bringing real reform. Here are some quotes from both republican and democrats recently:



“It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population.”

Democrat Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton



“Though only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.”  

Republican Senator Rand Paul



“There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential… The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”


Republican, Past Presidential Candidate, and Past Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich



“We believe Congress has a critical role to play in helping to restore trust in the criminal justice system, ensuring that every American is treated equally before the law,” 


Democrats - Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Conyers, Jr., and Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democratic members on three powerful House committees. 



Today’s show we bring Lois Ahrens, founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and also a founding member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She has spent over 50 years working with activists, justice policy researchers, and people directly experiencing the impacts of mass incarceration to bring meaningful reform to the system.


We discuss many issues including the main contributing factors to the explosion of growth in the last 3 decades, the institutional bias towards wealth, and the policies and prejudices that increases the incarceration rate amongst minority communities.


This episode is an eye-opening look into a very broken system that has far reaching social and economic impacts throughout our entire society. Perhaps the following quote sums up how we should look at this situation:


“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 
― Nelson Mandela


You can see more of Lois and her work at



Sarah Westall

BUSINESS GAME CHANGERS 12PM PT / 3PM ET Business Game Changers with Host Sarah Westall covers the big issues, disruptions, and cutting edge innovation. Each episode bri...

Find out more »


Lois Ahrens

Lois Ahrens has been an activist and organizer for social justice for more than 50 years. She is the founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organi...

Find out more »