The United States is home to 16% of all incarcerated people in the world, and that share has been on the rise since the 1980s. What do Americans think of the current levels of incarceration and the living conditions inside prisons in the U.S.? Recent YouGov polling on this topic found that Americans are fairly split on whether or not the level of incarceration is a problem in the U.S.: 36% say the U.S. incarcerates too many people, 21% say about the right number of people are incarcerated, and 24% say too few people are incarcerated. And few Americans say prisoners are treated inhumanely. But majorities say several bad outcomes such as sexual abuse and physical harm happen often to prisoners, and most think poor people are disproportionately likely to be locked up for committing crimes.
About half of Democrats (51%) say the U.S. imprisons too many people, while only 37% of Independents and 18% of Republicans agree. Americans who have been to prison or have family members or friends who have been to prison are also more likely to say the U.S. imprisons too many people. By age and race, the differences are starker for the shares who say the country imprisons too few people. Americans 65 and older and white Americans are more likely to say the U.S. imprisons too few people than are younger adults and Black and Hispanic Americans.
Despite varying opinions on the number of incarcerated people in the U.S., majorities of Americans are supportive of prisoners’ basic rights: more than half of Americans say prisoners should have the right to each of the following: medical care, religious expression, free speech, and working and earning wages. While similar shares of Democrats and Republicans support most of the rights polled about, smaller shares of Republicans than Democrats say prisoners should have the right to the following: privacy, voting, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
More Americans say that people in prisons are treated humanely than say they are treated inhumanely. While Democrats are divided on the matter, Republicans are far more likely to say that people in prisons are treated humanely rather than inhumanely. White Americans are also more likely than Black and Hispanic Americans to say people in prison are treated humanely. Another characteristic linked to differences of opinion on this question is having been to prison or having a friend or family member who has been to prison: People in this category are twice as likely as others to say people in prisons are treated inhumanely.
Even though just 27% of Americans say people in prisons are treated inhumanely, majorities of Americans say they think that each of the following happens somewhat or very often to people in prisons: being physically harmed by other prisoners (72%), being in overcrowded conditions (70%), and being sexually abused by other prisoners (64%). At least 40% of Americans say each of the following happens somewhat or very often to people in prisons: They attempt to commit suicide (52%), they are physically harmed by prison employees (49%), they are sexually abused by prison employees (43%), and they die due to a lack of adequate health care (41%).
Black Americans make up a disproportionately large share of incarcerated people in the U.S. relative to their share of the population. Do Americans say some groups are more likely to go to prison than others?
Nearly half of Americans say that Black people are more likely to be sent to prison than white people committing equivalent crimes, including 67% of Democrats, 39% of Independents, and 31% of Republicans. White and Hispanic Americans are less likely to take this position than Black Americans. Just 8% of Americans say white people are more likely to be sent to prison than Black people committing equivalent crimes.
Democrats, Independents, and Republicans are slightly more aligned when it comes to discrimination based on income: Majorities of all three groups say poor people are more likely to be sent to prison than wealthy people are. This opinion is less popular among Americans whose families' annual income is $100,000 or more than it is among Americans from lower-income families.
Looking ahead, only 9% of Americans say it is likely that they will be sentenced to prison at some point in the future. Larger shares of men, Hispanic Americans, and Americans with a family income of at least $100,000 than other groups say it is likely that they will be sentenced to prison.
— Taylor Orth, Linley Sanders, and Carl Bialik contributed to this article.
Methodology: The YouGov poll was conducted online on May 15 - 18, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. For both polls, the sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample also was weighted by baseline party identification, which is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.
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