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U.S. Versus the World: Prison Systems

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

No matter where in the world one chooses to look, it is nearly impossible to find a “Goldilocks” prison. Nevertheless, certain prisons, in comparison to others, do have better conditions.

While America’s prison system has aspects that surpass foreign prison systems, they are also flawed in various ways. America’s incarceration rate is higher than any other country, with 655 inmates per 100,000 people as of 2018. However, in 2020, the number of reported murders in 25 U.S. cities has surged 16.1 percent since last year, which means that a high incarceration rate does not imply that there will be a reduction in crime.

Prison Labor

The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, with around 2.1 million inmates nationwide. With 1.65 million inmates, China is the only country that even comes close to the U.S. in terms of the number of criminals it has incarcerated. This means that the U.S. has the largest prison labor system in the world.

The United Nations has issued a series of rules, known as “The Nelson Mandela Rules”, that regulate the treatment of prisoners. One of these rules mandates that prison laborers be provided a fair wage.

Instead of enforcing the rule nationwide, U.S. officials have allowed individual states to determine how much, if at all, they want to pay their prison laborers. New Jersey and Minnesota pay non-industry prison laborers up to two dollars an hour, while other states such as Alabama and Texas refuse to pay inmates anything for their work. As of 2017, prisoners in the U.S. earn an average minimum wage of 86 cents per hour.

America is not the only country that allows its prisoners to be paid low wages. The country’s prison laborer payment amounts are similar to those of various other countries including Russia and Australia. Prison laborers in Russia make around 34 cents per hour, while Australia’s prison laborers are paid 82 cents per hour. These rates are very similar to what a lot of U.S. states pay their inmates as well.

Prison Overcrowding

Prison overcrowding is the situation that arises when a jail has more inmates than it was initially intended to hold. This situation, largely prominent in the U.S, is creating less-than sufficient living conditions for some prisoners.

The U.S., which reports 103.9% capacity, faces prison overcrowding issues in over 17 states. Inmates are being forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor due to a lack of beds in some prisons all across the nation.

However, the prison overcrowding issues the U.S. faces pale in comparison to the extensive issues experienced by developing nations, where overcrowding has made living conditions within the prison system dangerous. A 2018 study found that, when compared, the U.S. ranks 113 out of 195 most overcrowded prison systems worldwide. In fact, the country with the world’s most overcrowded prison system, Haiti, has a 454.4% prison capacity (as of 2018), more than three times that of the U.S.’s capacity.

One prison meant to house 700 inmates in Venezuela currently holds 3,700 prisoners. The overcrowding has led to the spread of disease, understaffing, and riots. Prisons like this one in Venezuela are more often than not run by the inmates themselves, and are found to have prison gangs. The “hierarchy” inside these prisons causes violence and bloodshed within the facility.

While prison raids in American jails can reveal drug stockpiling and handmade weapons such as shivs, prison raids in Venezuela and other such nations where the prisoner-to-guard ratio can get as high as 150:1 have revealed the prisoners to be in possession of far worse items. In one raid in Venezuela’s Sabaneta Prison, police found that prisoners were stashing assault rifles, grenades, and even endangered animals.


One of the primary purposes of prisons is to rehabilitate convicts and provide for them a way to re-enter the world without committing any additional felonies or misdemeanors. Some countries are excellent at keeping their reoffending rates low, while other countries, America included, have displayed that their prison systems are not quite so successful in this area.

Scandinavian countries, primarily Norway, have some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. In 2014 alone, Norway’s reoffending rates were at about 20 percent, while recidivism rates in the U.S. reached up to 76.6% – one of the highest rates in the world.

Additionally, Norway’s incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US, thus proving that Norway’s methods in regards to rehabilitation are immensely more successful than the U.S.’s.

The main difference is that while the U.S. prison system focuses on punishment and justice, Norway’s prison system prioritizes a technique known as “restorative justice”, or rehabilitation. This technique focuses on repairing the harm caused by the crime rather than enforcing tough punishments.

Norwegian prisons are not full of the stereotypical prisoners in orange jumpsuits trapped in cells, but rather open fields with livestock, friendly guards, kitchens equipped with sharp objects, and recording studios. Vocational programs provided by Norweigan prisons treat prisoners in a humane and genial fashion – by having guards establish respectful relationships with the inmates – so that an overwhelming majority of the prisoners are ready to re-enter society as solid citizens with the skills necessary to apply for jobs.

This is a stark comparison to the physical surroundings in the U.S.’s prison system, consisting primarily of cement walls, metal barred windows, and fenced-in courts- almost nothing similar to the prisons that produce lower recidivism rates.

Through Teen Lenses: How do you think the U.S. Prison System compares to those of foreign countries?

“In my opinion, the prison system in our nation is highly flawed because it is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. The war on crime that started in the 80s has twisted our justice system to the point that many nonviolent offenders are given harsher sentences which has led to mass incarceration. In comparison, other countries, with Scandinavian nations such as Sweden and Denmark serving as prime examples of this contrast, focus on rehabilitating prisoners so that they can become functioning members of society. Teaching prisoners marketable skills so that they can get jobs has been shown to be more effective in lowering the crime rate. Although this is not true in every case, many prisoners become criminals with no other choice to support themselves or their families. This is especially true in countries like America where we do not have an expansive social safety net in terms of vital necessities such as healthcare. Additionally, the private prison system is heavily corrupt due to corporate interest. Because businesses that own prisons like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) gain more profit if more people are incarcerated, there are more infractions given to people held in private prisons because this will extend their sentence, thus earning the company more money. Prison labor is also often used as a cheap form of labor to benefit large companies because prisoners do not need to be paid. Overall, the prison system in America is highly flawed because of the leading ideology that values punishment over rehabilitation.” Maya Kang, Rising Freshman at The University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
“The United States’ incarceration rate is shockingly high for the country’s population. This falls alongside racial bias, unethical living situations, and, not to mention, re-incarceration rates as flaws of the American prison system. The whole system is one that needs to be re-assessed from a social and political standpoint and addressed immediately.” Mahi Pandya, Rising Senior at Mount Hebron High School, Ellicott City, Maryland
I think the current criminal justice system in the US makes absolutely no sense. All we really do is take people who are already troubled, lock them up, traumatize them, and send them back out into the world. This doesn’t benefit anyone. If you look at other countries, such as Norway and Germany, their approach is far more humane and rational as they aim to rehabilitate imprisoned people, leading to much lower reentry rates. For our “country of freedom” it is outrageous that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and one with such wide racial disparities – with 1 in 17 white men and 1 in 3 black men in prison. Hana Frank, Rising Sophomore at Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
I think the American prison system is very flawed. It has a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic inmates, and time and time again the justice system as a whole has given less harsher sentences to white inmates when it gives harsher sentences to minorities for the same crimes. Prisons are also private, so companies profit off having more prisoners in prison. Prisoners are often in not very good conditions, and I think parole is hard to get. Prisoners do not have enough rights, and if the prison system is to get better, we need to give prisoners more rights and make sure companies don’t prioritize profits or hand control over to the government. Noah Lenkin, Rising Senior at Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland


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