The Lack of Prison Data Harms Our Communities

By Alaina Ruffin

Who is in our prisons? How long have they been there? How much taxpayer funds are spent on incarcerating them? And why does any of that matter for our communities and the policies we create?

From better capturing racial and financial impacts to informing policy solutions aimed at enhancing people’s lives, having accurate quantitative data for prisons is a crucial starting point for understanding the U.S. carceral system. As of this year, the United States still holds one of the world’s highest populations of incarcerated people, reaching almost 2 million people across thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal carceral systems. Through the overcriminalization of minor infractions and nonviolent offenses, historically vulnerable communities — including Black, Latino, and low-income people — are disproportionately represented in our nation’s prisons.

Data on incarcerated people aren’t obtained by the typical paper or online survey format we’ve come to expect from the census. Rather, we rely on data provided by prison administrators, who then feed data into a designated system and make them available to the public. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is the country’s main source for criminal and carceral data, and it also administers the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) Program. Since 1926, this survey annually collects information about the number of people incarcerated on a national and state level. Its aggregated data goes into detail and paints a fuller picture of American prisons, including details about incarcerated people’s race and sex, the number of people held in local jails and private facilities, a facility’s overall capacity, and more.

The latest data available from the NPS survey are from 2021. However, a worrisome trend has steadily emerged in recent years for the availability of this data. Since 2017, data releases from the BJS have slowed down, with delays taking anywhere between a few months to more than two years between the reference date and the publication date. Even then, the data we do have are relatively scarce. While surveys like the NPS Program and the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails (last conducted in 2002) provide information about incarcerated people’s race, sex, and reason for incarceration, we lack more disaggregated data, such as detailed race and ethnicity data, information about gender identity — most often, data are differentiated between “male” and “female” — or on disability. Between publication delays and the general lack of specificity in the data we do have, it has been increasingly difficult to grasp who is incarcerated and in what system.

In order to understand the full state of our country’s carceral systems, let alone measure the effects of any legislative or policy reforms we may create or lack, we need accurate and timely disaggregated data. Data are also how we identify various disparities within the carceral system, including any potential racial, economic, or gender-based trends. In other words, disaggregated data on incarcerated people, the facilities that hold them, and the actors who keep them in place serve as a sort of microscope — providing policymakers and stakeholders with a more detailed glimpse into the state of the nation’s carceral systems.

The issue of counting the number of incarcerated people also intersects with other issues related to criminal-legal reform. For one, data collection is how we learn that the general age of the population of incarcerated people has dramatically increased, with the percentage of people over 55 in prison increasing by 12 percent between 1991 and 2021. Also, as the COVID-19 pandemic waxes and wanes, prison data could allow us to see how both the pandemic and the policy decisions made during its first few years impacted incarcerated populations. In order to properly inform policies that affect and perhaps even reform carceral systems, in addition to transferring political power back to historically vulnerable communities, the Census Bureau’s data collection standards need to be revised to be both granular and inclusive of these issues.

However, it’s not entirely fair to blame BJS for this lack of data. Out of the 13 federal statistical agencies, BJS is the smallest; when the Office of Justice Programs had a nearly $3 billion budget in discretionary funding during the 2023 fiscal year, BJS received about $42 million. Its size, combined with ongoing attempts from Congress to undermine its work, ultimately leaves BJS underfunded and lacking the same resources as other federal offices. Alongside this, most states generally lack criminal-legal data at all. The issue of delayed data publications underscores a much larger crisis of states outright lacking basic data on even the questions raised at the beginning of this piece. Also, the lack of government data puts the burden on historically vulnerable communities to collect the missing data themselves, including through surveys like the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS). State-level comprehensive data collection suffers from a lack of an infrastructure system and incentives to create one. The cost-benefit analysis centers on the administrative burden to the criminal-legal system rather than on the benefits of having data that accurately represent the people who are caught up in the system.

While not solely sufficient to advance equity and justice, data are necessary components. As noted in a report on the Death in Custody Reporting Act issued in February 2023 by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and POGO, the issue of limited carceral data is at its very core central to ensuring civil and human rights. Although the limited data we do have shows some of the disparities in carceral systems, deeper issues are masked if we only have top-level data. Policies that could ameliorate disparities will not occur until decision-makers, advocates, and researchers understand the full breadth of our nation’s carceral systems. In order to understand who is in our prisons, we need accurate and timely disaggregated data to paint the full picture.

Alaina Ruffin was a summer 2023 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.