One out of every 100 adults in the US is in prison, making the United States the country with the highest official incarceration rate in the world. Moreover at the end of 2008 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 7.3 million people were on probation, on parole, or incarcerated—that’s 1 in every 31 adults. The context for these burgeoning statistics is an era of “zero tolerance” and “mandatory sentencing” laws, which escalated the punitive treatment of non-violent offenders.

"Shadow" violated his parole because he'd been deported to El Salvador. On a trip in transit through the US he was arrested as a parole fugitive. He languishes in the Dade county Jail while the US government decides his fate.

A study by the Pew Charitable Trust questions the impact of cutting services such as education and health care, while prison budgets grow. According to the Pew report published in 2008 most states spend an average of $29,000 a year on prisoners despite studies which show that it is both cheaper and more effective to monitor non-violent offenders in community programs including parole and probation, instead of sending them to prison. If reduction of recidivism rates is one of the goals of the criminal justice system, the Pew researchers point out that increased spending on prisons has had no positive impact on deterring repeat offenses.

Advocates for alternatives to prison at the Justice Policy Institute point out that in the 1980s, before the prison boom of the last two decades, African American men in college outnumbered those in prison by a rate of 3 to 1. In the first decade of this century the number of black men in prison surged way ahead of those in college.

18th Street gang member in a punishment cell.

The United States also incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world, and applies the law in ways that disproportionately impact African American and Latino youth. More youth of color are tried as adults. A Justice Policy Institute study comparing youth incarceration rates in CA during the 10 years since the inception of the harsher sentencing law known as the “Three Strikes Laws” found that the “third strike sentence was applied to Latino youth at rates 45 times higher than for Caucasians. For African American youth the rate of third strike sentencing was 12 times higher than for Caucasians.

Sixty-six percent of juvenile offenders are in custody for non-violent crimes, despite evidence that detention exacerbates delinquency rates. And US youth are not safe in detention. According to a December 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 12% of youth in state juvenile facilities and large non-state facilities reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization. 2.6% reported incidents involving another youth and 10.3% reported an incident involving staff.

In Central America the numbers of adults and youth in prisons since the passage of zero tolerance legislation such as SUPER MANO DURO has skyrocketed. In El Salvador the prison population more than tripled over a decade and each of the major gangs now have several prison facilities, which exclusively house members of their particular gang. The unsanitary conditions produced by extreme overcrowding, the lack of state-funded prison education or re-entry programs and the negligent or abusive role that authorities in Central America have played in several prison tragedies are of grave concern to human rights advocates.