Behind Bars: The 15 States That Put the Most People in Prison

With so much light being shed on the country’s violent crime problem, gun laws, and the people who enforce them, many are starting to question just how safe our cities and states are. The United States locks away more prisoners than any other country. While the annual cost of keeping a person in prison varies by state, taxpayers across the country still have to foot the $39 billion corrections bill.

Criminal codes are state mandated, meaning some states put more people in prison than others. The Sentencing Project analyzed the incarceration rate and other correctional data to find the states with the largest and smallest prison systems. So which states are more likely to put someone behind bars? Here are the 15 states with the highest incarceration rates.

15. Delaware

Delaware has a lot of people in prison per capita. | Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 441 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $291 million

This tiny Mid-Atlantic state puts a surprisingly high number of people in the slammer per capita. Delaware has a population of 952,065 residents — 4,188 of whom are prisoners. In comparison, the state with the lowest incarceration rate, Maine, has just 132 people in prison per every 100,000.

Next: A dangerous state with lots of prisoners behind bars

14. Nevada

Reno, Nevada downtown
Nevada is one of the most dangerous states. | ddub3429/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 444 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $290 million

Nevada has 12,944 people locked up in prison. It’s considered one of the most dangerous states, carrying the second highest violent crime rate nationwide. Despite its higher rate of incarceration, the state spends comparably little money on the correctional system in relation to other U.S. states on this list.

Next: A state with a high number of “lifers”

13. Ohio

downtown Cleveland by the Veterans Memorial Bridge
Over 50,000 people are in prison. | PapaBear/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 449 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $1.9 billion

According to The Sentencing Project, there are over 6,500 people serving life sentences in Ohio — the fifth most of all 50 U.S. states. So it should come as no surprise that expenditures reach the billions when considering so many of the prisoners are mainstays in the system. In Ohio, 52,233 people are in prison, but that hardly holds a candle to the 243,710 on probation in the Buckeye State.

Next: The first of many Southern states

12. Virginia

Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Many Southern states made the list. | ablokhin/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 457 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $1.3 billion

As you make your way through this list, you might notice the geographical presence of Southern states and the absence of other regions. Like many of its Southern counterparts, Virginia makes the list for highest incarceration rates by state. It spends over $1.3 billion to house 38,403 prisoners.

Next: Overcrowded cells are an issue for this state.

11. Kentucky

Old architecture of Lexington, Kentucky
The prison system is a heavy burden on the state. | benkrut/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 489 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $611 million

The state with the 10th most people in prison is Kentucky. In fact, the Bluegrass State has been toying with the idea of private prisons over state prisons, after years of dealing with overcrowded cells and a large financial burden. In Kentucky, 21,697 people are in prison with more than double that — 54,049 — on probation.

Next: One of the largest prison systems in the country

10. Florida

running on beach
Florida has the second highest number of people in prison. | Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 496 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $2.7 billion

This prime retirement destination is yet another state pulling double duty with both prison incarceration rates and substantial violent crime. Precisely 101,424 people are in Florida’s prison system, boasting the second highest total inmate population nationwide. (We’ll get to the No. 1 state shortly.)

The main reason it spends over $2 billion on inmates? The state is housing the second highest number of prisoners serving life sentences for their crimes. In Florida, 13,005 people are in for life.

Next: Another state spending billions on its prisoners

9. Georgia

Downtown of Athens
Georgia spends over $1 billion on corrections expenses. | SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 503 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $1.6 billion

Not to be outdone by its neighbor Florida, Georgia also holds a substantial amount of those locked up for life. Out of the 51,700 total population of prisoners in Georgia, 8,776 have been slapped with life sentences.  

Next: The most common crime in Missouri

8. Missouri

St. Louis downtown
The top reason inmates are in prison is for breaking controlled substance laws. | f11photo/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 530 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $682 million

Landing solidly within the top 15 states with the most prisoners, Missouri houses 32,328 people in its prison system. The No. 1 reason people in this state are in prison is for the distribution, delivery, or manufacture of a controlled substance, according to state data.

Next: The surprising numbers in Texas

7. Texas

Farmer struggles in a dried out field
There are over 150,000 people in prison. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 568 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $3.5 billion

The state known for strict law enforcement and a staunch view on the death penalty spends over $3 billion per year on corrections — the highest of all states. A whopping 157,251 Texas residents are in prison, another 66,210 are in jail, and 9,118 are sentenced for life.

At one point, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was one of the largest systems in the nation. If it were a city, it would be the 20th largest municipality in the state.

Next: Violent crime runs rampant in this state.

6. Arkansas

A welcome sign marks the state line between Arkansas and Oklahoma
Just under half of inmates in Arkansas are serving time for violent crime. | wellesenterprises/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 591 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $495 million

Forty-eight percent of Arkansas’ prison population is doing time for a violent crime, according to the state data. There are 17,656 people in prison here. Because its population is lower than that of say, Texas, its incarceration rate is much higher. As a result, Arkansas is more likely to put prisoners behind bars than most other states.

Next: The border problem

5. Arizona

Phoenix with its downtown lit
Arizona is another state that spends over $1 billion on corrections. | Dreamframer/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 596 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $1.1 billion

As a state, Arizona has been quite vocal about the crime problem it faces on the border. The statistics don’t lie either. Arizona has the fifth highest incarceration rate of all states. And Arizona is another state forking over more than $1 billion per year to house, feed, and guard its prisoners. Nearly 41,000 people are in prison, and 1,685 of them are serving life sentences.

Next: The poorest state in America also has a large prison population.

4. Mississippi

Jackson, Mississippi
Mississippi has a high incarceration rate. | SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 609 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $360 million

Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with dismal ratings for hunger and a poverty rate that hovers around 24%. Unfortunately, it also has a higher incarceration rate than most other states with 18,236 people in prison. On the bright side, Mississippi wins the award for “most improved state,” as its prison system recently saw a substantial annual inmate decline.

Next: Prison care is “unconstitutional” in this state.

3. Alabama

scene of downtown Huntsville, Alabama
Mental health care for prison inmates in Alabama is lacking. | iStock/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 611 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $618 million

Alabama rounds out the top three states that put the most people in prison. There are 29,762 people in prison and another 56,700 people on probation. What’s worse is Alabama inmates’ mental care is lacking. One judge recently ruled the care mentally ill prisoners receive from the state is inadequate and unconstitutional.

Next: A Midwestern state

2. Oklahoma

oklahoma city
The state has a rate of 715 incarcerated per 100,000 people. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 715 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $496 million

The prison population in the Sooner State is 28,114 people, with 2,908 serving life sentences. There are 715 people in prison for every 100,000 residents, awarding this state second place when it comes to its incarceration rate.

Next: The state with the greatest prison population is …

1. Louisiana

Dusk falls over Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, 11 July 2006, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. For tourists strolling through the French Quarter it's easy to forget that Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans a year ago. The beignets are fresh, trinkets and designer clothes are artfully arranged in shop windows, and hurricanes are spinning in the bars on Bourbon Street. But while the music, food and good times have come back, the crowds have not and the city is struggling to make ends meet while its main industry remains crippled. With more than 10 million visitors a year, tourism was once a 5.5 billion dollar industry in New Orleans, accounting for 40 percent of the city's tax revenues and employing 85,000 people. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
  • Prison incarceration rate: 776 per 100,000 people
  • Total corrections expenditures: $831 million

Louisiana is the nation’s prison capital, according to The Sentencing Project. Of the 67,297 people incarcerated in Louisiana, 36,347 are in prison and 30,950 are in jail. And what’s more, 4,895 people are serving life sentences.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.

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