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Mass Incarceration In Massachusetts

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with more than 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails–that’s 716 out of every 100,000 citizens behind bars. In fact, as ArtsEmerson’s Artistic Director David Dower notes, most states, including Massachusetts “have a higher rate of incarceration than nearly every developed nation on the planet,” including countries that have experienced major social turbulences in the 20th century, like former Soviet Republics and South Africa (check out https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/ to look at an incarceration rate break down). To prepare for Liza Jessie Peterson’s timely piece about these disproportionate incarceration rates, The Peculiar Patriot (OCT 17 – 28), we’ve compiled a fast facts sheet to understand how this social justice problem effects Massachusetts specifically.


As of 2017, Massachusetts has almost 9,000 individuals in prisons and over 10,000 in jails, making the total incarceration rate in the state around 19,000. It is important to note the difference between jails and prisons, especially since the terms seem interchangeable. Jails are usually local facilities under the jurisdiction of a city or county. Jails are short-term holding facilities for newly arrested people and those awaiting trial or sentencing. Prisons are institutional facilities under the jurisdiction of the state or federal government where convicted offenders serve longer sentences.

Although Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the United States, it still imprisons more people than almost every other country in the world, with the exception of seven (Cuba, Rwanda, Russia, El Salvador, Azerbaijan, Panama, and Thailand). Massachusetts incarcerates 377 people per 100,000.

The Massachusetts incarcerated population experienced a brief increase of 4% between 2008 and 2012, but then significantly decreased by 21% from 2012 and 2018. In the last decade, the Massachusetts incarcerations rate has had an overall 18% population decrease.. Over this same time period, however, the national population increased by 36%.

Of the 9,496 men and women put on trial or criminally sentenced in 2017 in the statewide system, more than 48% are African American or Hispanic. Nationally, African Americans and Hispanics comprise 56% of all incarcerated people, even though they make up just 32% of the U.S. population. If you were to frame this against the ratio used above, that is 605 African Americans incarcerated per 100,000. The rate for white people, on the other hand, is 81 per 100,000.



While there has been a slight decrease in incarceration rates in Massachusetts over the last decade, the state still imprisons 4 to 5 times more people than it did 40 years ago in the mid 1970s.

Nationwide, 1 out of 5 incarcerated people is convicted for a drug offense. That’s about 200,000 in state prisons, 118,000 in local jails, 82,000 in federal prisons, and 2,600 in youth facilities. Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate for drug-related offenses, with about 14% of all inmates in jails and prisons being locked up due to a drug offense.

Although shocking, these statistics are true. The United States, which houses 5% of the world’s total population, has over 21% of the world’s total amount of incarcerated people. The Peculiar Patriot explores the impact of mass incarceration in the United States, especially as it relates to morale and the human experience. Don’t miss this powerful one-woman show at the Emerson Paramount Center Jackie Liebergott Black Box Oct 17-28. 

Learn more about mass incarceration statistics in Massachusetts and the United States:






1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. But prisons are unsafe places now. Even worse.


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