The Pseudoscience of Incarceration — Where is the Data?

The prison is a facet of society that is taken, unquestionably, for granted. Most people cannot fathom a world in which the prison does not exist, yet to most, it is nothing more than an abstract concept that exists “over there.” In truth, justification for the existence of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is supported by little to no data; bail amount, sentence length, mandatory minimums, solitary confinement, parole terms, etc. are often arbitrarily chosen numbers that are not derived from any scientific methodology. More so, the sentiment against the PIC is supported by an exponentially greater amount of data, yet the notion of abolition continues to be a radical one.

The Current System

Incarceration rates are at an all-time high. Despite making up only 4% of the world’s population, the US contains 22% of the world’s prison population. On the converse, crime is at an all-time low. So what’s the problem? On the surface, it appears that prison is functioning successfully to keep society crime-free. The cost of this however, is that more than 2 million people in the US are locked in cages.

“[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

— Angela Davis, “Are Prisons Obsolete”

One of the primary edicts behind the No New Jails movement is that “If you build it, you will fill it.” Incarceration is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and historically when new prisons have been built, they have quickly been filled. As a result of this cycle, US prison & jail populations have increased by 500% in the last 40 years. One eventually must question whether this is a sustainable model, but more importantly, whether this is humane.

Analyzing Racial Overrepresentation in Prisons

EDA using BeautifulSoup, Pandas, & Foliumview the full project here

Recent studies show that Black Americans are 6 times as likely to be incarcerated, 2.5% more likely to be arrested, and receive sentences that are 10% longer than those of white Americans. This exploratory analysis visualizes what the racial breakdown of incarcerated populations looks like for each US state:

Overrepresentation ratios of Black, LatinX, and white incarcerated populations, averaged by state

This graph was generated by scraping this table from, which contains data on demographics of incarcerated populations by county and state. The Overrepresentation Ratio signifies the ratio of a group’s total presence in a county, and its presence in the prison population. From the graph, we see that Illinois has an average ratio of 40 for Black people, and 6 for LatinX people, indicating the percentage of incarcerated people in Illinois that are Black is 40 times higher than it should be, and 6 times higher than it should be for LatinX people.

Overrepresentation of Black Americans in prisons & jails, by county

This interactive map uses Python’s Folium visualization library to display Black Prisoner Overrepresentation ratios, derived from the above data, at the county level. Lighter colors indicate lower ratios around 1, while darker shades of blue denote higher ratios, reaching the 500’s. It is evident through visualizing the data in this format that the majority of prisons in the nation have an overrepresentation of Black people, but that the Midwest in particular over-incarcerates Black Americans at an astonishing level.

Justice Should Be Data-Driven

My understanding of prison abolition can be broken into four main ideas, each of which can be substantiated by data:

1. Crime Stems from Unmet Needs

Crime most often occurs when a person is unable to fulfill their basic human needs, such as obtaining food, water, medication, or shelter. “Crime” is an arbitrary term; an action is not inherently criminal, but rather actions are labeled as crimes once they have been culturally or legally defined as such. In truth, there is no legitimate scientific methodology behind which activities are defined as “crimes,” nor the way in which the punishment for these crimes is assigned.

The existence of prison creates an “us versus them” narrative, in which there are “criminals” who belong behind bars, and then there are the rest of us who belong in free society. In reality, the majority of people who commit crimes will never see the inside of a prison cell. The majority of people reading this article have likely broken the law in some capacity, they simply were never caught.

2. The Prison Industrial Complex is Systemically Racist

Many people are surprised to find that the militarized police force that exists today in America is a relatively new idea. In the South, the first police forces were created in the 1700’s to preserve the slavery system. Many of these policing institutions were comprised of Slave Patrols — organized groups of armed white men who enforced discipline upon Black slaves and chased down runaways. During the Reconstruction era, local sheriffs often functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Today this racism persists in a number of ways:

  • Prison labor, which in many cases is uncompensated, functions as legalized slave labor. The 13th amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”
  • Black and brown neighborhoods are disproportionately policed, which logically leads to more arrests and incarceration.
  • “Tough On Crime” legislation such as the Stop & Frisk program enabled unchecked racial profiling, which disproportionately targeted Black New Yorkers

3. Prison is Not Effective for Rehabilitation

It has been stated, through extensive research, that Prison does little to “rehabilitate” a person. Upon release they are re-introduced to the conditions which led them to prison in the first place, now exacerbated by addition of a criminal record, strict parole requirements, and the psychological scars of incarceration. Hence, recidivism, or re-incarceration rates lie around 44% within the first year of release, and 83% within nine years.

4. Prison & Policing Perpetuate Violence

Violence, or “harm” is a more holistic metric of a society’s well-being than “crime,” because it also accounts for harmful actions beyond the scope of crime, such as wage theft, domestic violence, and police brutality.

Taking into consideration this notion of harm, it is important to recognize that prisons and policing attempt to address one type of harm — that which falls under the definition of a “crime.” Their existence however, produces compounding harm in the form of physical & psychological violence, which manifest in wealth disparities, addiction, mental illness, and domestic violence that permeate into a prisoner’s family and community.

Stopping the Cycle

Violence breeds more violence, harm breeds more harm. One must begin to question whether a person, stripped of their basic humanity for years, torn away from every person they love, is truly equipped to successfully reintegrate into society upon release. The idea of a world without prisons, where resources are invested into communities rather than punishment, is an idea supported by volumes of data — prison abolition is not a radical notion, because data is not radical, it simply exists.

Reference Material

“Are Prisons Obsolete” by Angela Y. Davis

Beyond Prisons” Podcast



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Khyatee Desai

Khyatee Desai


music lover, picture taker, aspiring data scientist based in nyc