Latest21st Century Racial Demographics Reflect 19th Century in Prison Statistics

According to the Sentencing Project, seven U.S. states are maintaining a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. When comparing the prisons of today to the prisons of centuries ago, little has changed–at least in regards to racial demographics.

As early as the 1800s, Black inmates are recorded as the dominant to occupy American prisons to date. U.S. penitentiaries blew up post American Civil War, as civil unrest persisted due to economic struggle. To conduct order, civilians particularly in the South–where most Black Americans were concentrated, faced a drastic increase in arrests and imprisonment; as did the West, where illegal immigrants were often found. By 1880, the imprisonment of illegal immigrants began to decrease, as Black Americans became the mass majority. 

In 2000, Pennsylvania led all jurisdictions (including all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal prison system) in having the greatest disparity between the White and non-White incarceration rate. In the Keystone state-which in 2000 was 85% White (not including Latinos)- ethnic and racial minorities were incarcerated at 13 times the rate of Whites. African Americans were incarcerated at 16 times the rate of Whites, and Hispanics were incarcerated at just under 9 times the rate of Whites. While the White incarceration rate in Pennsylvania is in line with the more modest use of incarceration seen in Western Europe and Canada, the African American and Hispanic incarceration rates are amongst the highest in the world. –

Actually, America’s first modern prison, the Walnut Street Prison built in Philadelphia, closed in 1838 because the “approach” of having communal work and dining spaces “abandoned solitary confinement–” despite being bigger than surrounding detention centers in Pennsylvania.
It became too difficult to maintain “order,” and acted as inspiration for future prisons post revolution that now emphasize on labor.

Though, by 2000, Pennsylvania began to set off a trend we still see today, of high racial disparities within inmate demographics–often with Black inmates making the majority. Despite the Walnut Street prison closing in 1838, Philadelphia as a city had imprisoned almost 30,000 people of color within a twenty year span (from 1980), despite Philadelphia’s population being 85% white at the time of 1980. 

In the last twenty years, the number of prisoners in Pennsylvania more than quadrupled, from 8,112 (1980) to 36,614 (2000). During that same period, the proportion of Pennsylvania prisoners that were White dropped from 45%, to 34%, and the number of non-White prisoners grew to 66%. Put another way, of the 28,000 new inmates that were added to Pennsylvania prisons during the last twenty-years, 7 in 10 new inmates were Non-White. African Americans made-up 57% of the growth in inmates during this period. –

As far as the Walnut Street penitentiary, it was closed because the model in which it operated wasn’t an effective “rehabilitation” process, and made clear that solitary confinement did not inspire the great outcomes–so the model in attempts to “reform” was changed to emphasize on labor, which was the inspired by the upstate New York Prison, Auburn, built in 1821; which in 2021, still racially reflects people of color as the mass majority of inmates.

With Slavery being abolished in 1865, and prisons reflecting imprisonment falling primary on the body’s of Black and brown folk, the numbers continue as they began–dsiporportioniate. Even through a shot at reform (Walnut Street Penitentiary), the outcome has been consistent within imprisonment rates, despite Black people making up less than 15% of the racial demographic in the U.S., and white people consisting of over 50% of the population. Today in America, a Black person is 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person. There is an apparent connection to slavery and incarceration when taking the numbers into consideration, so was the goal with prisons truly crime rehabilitation, or rebranding racial enslavement?

Between 1979 (before slavery was abolished), and 1990 (after slavery was abolished), the number of blacks as a percentage of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons increased from 39 to 53 percent. Although the admissions for both races, in absolute numbers, rose sharply, the increase was greatest for blacks (Figure 1). –



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