Mass Incarceration: Myths and Truths

Many people have their perception and understanding of mass incarceration. For instance, some believe that most people in jail are legally innocent and that much of mass incarceration is related to drugs. This article will consider some myths about mass incarceration and the real truth.

Myth 1:

The first myth is that private prisons are the corrupt heart of mass incarceration. However, only seven percent of all incarcerated individuals are in private prisons. Most of those incarcerated are held in publicly-owned jails and prisons.

Myth 2:

Many believe prisons are factories behind fences that only exist to provide companies with a huge force of slave labor. However, only about 5,000 incarcerated people, less than one percent, are employed by private companies. Meanwhile, those employed gain employment through the federal PIECP, which requires companies to pay at least a minimum wage before deductions.

Only about six percent of incarcerated people in state prisons work for state-owned correctional industries, which pay much less. Nevertheless, prisons rely on prisoners’ labor for food, laundry, and other services, paying them unconscionably low wages.

Myth 3:

Another set of people believes that mass incarceration would end if prisons would release nonviolent drug offenders. At the same time, it is true that prosecutors, judges, and the police harshly punish people for mere drug possession. It is also true that four out of five people are not in jail for drugs but for something more or less serious.

For an end to mass incarceration, how the criminal legal system and society respond to very serious crimes needs to change. We must stop incarcerating people for benign behaviors and be more receptive to crimes more serious than drug possession.

Myth 4:

Most people believe that people incarcerated for sexual or violent crimes are too dangerous to be released. Many prisoners convicted of violent offenses have indeed caused others serious harm.

However, the issue is that we judge individuals based on their offense type rather than their circumstances. This is why many believe people who commit sexual or violent crimes are incapable of rehabilitation and should spend forever in prison.

Myth 5:

The fifth myth is that violent crime involves physical harm by definition. However, there is less distinction between “violent” and “nonviolent” than you might think. These two terms are often misused, so they are not helpful in policy.

Generally, people use these two terms as substitutes for serious versus non-serious crimes, which alone is a fallacy. However, worse than being a fallacy, these terms are coded language to label people as dangerous and non-dangerous. The truth is that state and federal laws apply the term “violent” to different criminal acts, including those not including physical harm.

For instance, some states characterize purse snatching, stealing drugs, and manufacturing methamphetamines as violent crimes. Meanwhile, while burglary is considered a property crime, several state and federal laws classify it as violent in some situations – like when weapons are involved.

Myth 6:

Another common myth is that the best way to reduce incarceration is by expanding community supervision, which includes parole and probation. However, while community supervision is preferable to be locked up, the conditions attached are too restrictive, and people fail. It includes long supervision terms, constant surveillance, and many burdensome requirements that result in frequent failures.


These five myths are only a few flying around where mass incarceration is involved. “We must focus on policy changes to completely end mass incarceration rather than simply putting a dent in it. More so, policy changes capable of ending mass incarceration require that the public put these issues into perspective,” says Attorney Ryan McPhie of Grand Canyon Law Group.