If someone asks you what America does better than the rest of the world, a few things may come quickly to mind: high tech, entertainment, energy and fast food, for example. But there's another answer that's less cheery: The U.S. leads the world in imprisoning people.
For petty crime, drug offenses or violence, no other nation in the world puts more people per capita behind bars than we do. When you add up federal, state and local prisons, immigration detention centers, juvenile facilities, military prisons, and Native American-run facilities, the U.S. has 2.4 million people locked up, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. For perspective, that's 1.5 times as many people per capita as the Russian Federation imprisons. States take the biggest haul, with 1.4 million prisoners, followed by local jails and, bringing up the rear, the federal government.
There are 722,000 people in local jails at any given time, 59 percent of whom have yet to be convicted of a crime. However, the churn is immense, with 12 million people rotating in and out of local jails every single year.
Keeping that many people locked up is anything but cheap. The Vera Institute of Justice estimated that in 2010, the cost of U.S. prisons was $39 billion -- $5.4 billion more than is budgeted for them.
American ingenuity has also turned incarceration into an immensely profitable business. Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) claims to be "the nation's largest owner of partnership correction and detention facilities and one of the largest prison operators in the United States, behind only the federal government and three states." Last year, that translated into $1.7 billion in revenues. The Geo Group (GEO) -- which owns, leases, and runs correctional and re-entry facilities in five countries, including the U.S. -- wasn't far behind with $1.5 billion in 2013 revenue.
Here are some more fascinating and disturbing facts about America's incarceration industry. (To enlarge the graphic, just click on it.)
Our $39 Billion Incarceration Epidemic Explained in One Infographic
More from Erik Sherman
•Don't Buy Your College Kid a Laptop at the Campus Store
•States See 1998 Tobacco Settlement Money Go Up in Smoke
•Facebook and Google Are in Trouble - and You're to Blame