Just How Many?

The United States has by far the largest correctional system in the world. It is so large, in fact, so sprawling and dispersed, so administratively complex that just how many people are incarcerated is uncertain.

The most commonly cited statistic is that are about 2.3 million inmates on any given day. This statistic comes from a survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that on June 30, 2009, the United States housed 203,233 Federal prisoners, 1,326,547 State prisoners, and 767,620 detainees in local jails.

In addition, it is estimated that more than 80,000 youth are held in juvenile detention facilities on any given day. Before being deported, about 400,000 people a year pass through our Nation’s immigration detention system, which is run principally by the Department of Homeland Security. BJS also estimates that during a year’s time 12-13 million people are processed through the approximately 3,100 jail facilities throughout the Nation.

Finally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees jails in Indian Country, and the Department of Defense has its own network of more than sixty detention facilities all over the globe. Hundreds of thousands more individuals are also housed in halfway houses and police lockups; no one knows the exact number.

A Jail… or Prison?

Although the public and the media may not fully recognize the differences between a jail and a prison and often use the two terms interchangeably, both are secure facilities in which individuals are physically confined and denied certain personal freedoms. There are also facilities referred to as lockups. In general, jails/lockups confine offenders for a short term, whereas prisons are used for the long term.

In 2007, the American Jail Association published Who’s Who in Jail Management, Fifth Edition, which reported that there were 3,096 counties in the United States, which were being served by 3,163 jail facilities. At that time, the total rated capacity of these facilities stood at 810,966. Note that rated capacity refers to the number of inmates or beds determined by an official body and often based on architectural design and construction. Rated capacity represents the number of inmates at which a facility can operate safely. This number is usually determined by the agency head or facility supervisor.


“A lockup is a temporary holding facility and is primarily found at the local level. The local lockup is often the offender’s first step in being incarcerated. Lockups are generally operated by the local police or sheriff’s office and are located in police headquarters, station houses, or a designated area if the jail building.

A lockup is defined as a temporary hold facility, usually operated by a police department that holds offenders pending bail or transport to the local jail for processing, inebriates (those offenders arrested for public drunkenness) until they are ready or sober enough to be released, and juvenile offenders pending release to parental custody or placement in a juvenile detention center at the order of juvenile court.[2]

Due to the various locations of lockups, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many lockups there actually are in the United States.”


“The next major type of correctional facility is the jail. Prisoners who do not get released from the lockup are transported to the local jail of the jurisdiction in which they were arrested. For many offenders, incarceration in the local jail (if not confined in a lockup immediately after arrest) means experiencing what it means to be locked up for the first time.

A jail is defined as a correctional facility administered by a local law enforcement agency, such as a sheriff’s office or local corrections department; confines adult offenders and juveniles under certain circumstances who are awaiting trial or sentenced to one year (12 months) or less.[3]

In the past 20 years, in a cost saving measure and to pool staffing, finances and other resources many jurisdictions throughout the United States have constructed regional jails. Regional jails are defined as jails that are operated by several jurisdictions jointly by mutual agreement with each jurisdiction contributing funds for operations and staffing.[4] This has met with success in several states, including Virginia.”

Jails can be categorized according to size. Mega jails have a 1,000-plus bed capacity. Large jails have a 250- to 999-bed capacity. Medium jails have a 50- to 249-bed capacity. Small jails have a 1- to 49-bed capacity. Small jails make up the largest percentage of local correctional facilities, followed by medium, large, and mega, respectively.


“The third type of facility that comes to mind upon hearing the word ‘corrections’ is the prison. A prison is defined as a correctional facility that houses convicted offenders under long sentences, usually over one year. Prisons are administered by state governments, the federal government or a private corrections company.[3] The term “prison” is often interchangeably used with the term “penitentiary” or may be called a reformatory.

Prisons hold adult inmates or juveniles adjudicated (sentenced) as adult criminals serving long terms for serious crimes. Characteristics of prisons are high custody levels, solitary confinement for high risk dangerous inmates, and single cell occupancy whenever possible. However, where a jail may restrict inmate movement and have more confining architecture, such as cellblocks, prisons allow inmates more freedom of movement—in dormitories, program areas, exercise yards, etc., plus allowing a more flexible daily routine.”

Problems with Jail Operations [1]

“Jail operations and management philosophies are not uniform; neither is the amount of funding, staffing or equipment that is provided to local jails. One county or city may have enough funding to adequately hire, train and equip staff; in another locality this may not be the case. …[T]he problems in jails may be attributed to three factors. First, many jails are old, the majority being constructed before 1970 and many of those were built five decades before that. Second, the local control of jails and the political factors of sheriffs being elected result in erratic, changing policies, procedures, and management philosophies that staff and inmates have to adapt to. Third, many jurisdictions consider jail funding a low priority, resulting in limited operations and a lower quality of services and personnel as compared with state and federal departments.”[4]


[1] Cornelius, Gary F. (2010). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, 2nd Edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

[2] American Correctional Association (2002). 2002–2004 National Jail and Adult Detention Directory. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

[3] Cornelius, Gary F. (2008). The American Jail; Cornerstone of Modern Corrections. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

[4] Champion, Dean. (2008). Point of View: Jails and Jail History. In: Cornelius, Gary F. (2008). The American Jail Cornerstone of Modern Corrections. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


American Jail Association
1135 Professional Court
Hagerstown, MD 21740-5853
Phone: 301–790–3930 | Fax: 301–790–2941

The American Jail Association (AJA) is the leading industry organization exclusively focused on supporting the professionals who staff and operate our nation's jails. Through networking, training, education, and leadership opportunities, AJA helps develop career corrections professionals - and raises the standard for all corrections employees, management, and facilities nationwide.