Watch America Imprisoned: Our Mass Incarceration Problem

Written by: The Exchange

The rate of imprisonment in the United States has more than quadrupled during the last four decades. With a penal population of 2.2 million adults, America has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners in its custody. Our current rate of incarceration is 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies. But beyond these numbers, it’s important to look closely at exactly who we’re incarcerating. Our prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged: mostly men under age 40, disproportionately minority, and poorly educated. How did we get here? What does this say about our basic humanity? And how do we balance current policies and practices with the rights of those whom we’ve consigned to imprisonment? National Academy of Sciences member Bruce Western, who co-chaired our landmark study on the growth of incarceration rates in the America, is an expert on the causes, scope, and consequences of the historic increases in U.S. prison populations. Joining him for what promises to be a provocative and informative conversation will be poet and lawyer Reginald Dwyane Betts, whose tireless fight for clemency and parole on behalf of individuals facing lengthy sentences earned him a MacArthur Fellowship.


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer promoting the rights and humanity of people who are or have been incarcerated. Betts’s work is informed by his experience with incarceration after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at the age of sixteen. As a practicing lawyer, he fights for clemency and parole for individuals facing lengthy sentences. Betts was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2012, and since 2018 he has served as a member of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission, which appoints state prosecutors.

Bruce Western is the Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and Co-Director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. His research has examined the causes, scope, and consequences of the historic growth in U.S. prison populations. He was the Vice Chair of the National Academy of Sciences panel on the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates in the United States. He is the author of Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison and Punishment and Inequality in America. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.