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The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry

by Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative and Western Prison Project, 2003, 48 pages

Review by Paul Wright

As a prison journalist, one of the most challenging things is reporting the facts and putting those facts into a bigger context since no story occurs in a vacuum. There are a multitude of statistics, numbers and facts concerning the American criminal justice system. The problem is that they tend to be scattered in a variety of locations and documents and are hard to access for all but the most dedicated researchers. Peter Wagner, the assistant director of the Prison Policy Initiative and founder of, an online database of facts and statistics pertaining to the prison industry, realized the same thing and decided to correct it. The result is a slick, well produced and superbly organized booklet.

The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control industry gathers facts and figures on literally all aspects of the criminal justice system, digests them and presents them in a cogent, organized format that can be used by everyone from the novice writer of letters to the editor-, to experienced journalists, academics and researchers.

Most importantly, it allows prisoners and citizens concerned about the growth of the prison industry to measure that growth in hard numbers. Similar to Harper's Index, The Prison Index is a very user friendly source of facts, figures and numbers pertaining to crime and punishment.

Organized into four sections, The Prison Index breaks downs its numbers in Crime and Punishment in the US; Incarceration and its Consequences; the Prison Economy and Global Comparisons. Heavily illustrated with bar graphs and charts it shows the rise of America's prison population and the disconnect between crime, public safety, mass imprisonment and the public perceptions of these issues. Every figure is sourced and footnoted. One thing I hate is when people say "everyone knows." All too often what "everyone knows" is usually wrong and is merely what the corporate media has parroted ad nauseum. As one public relations expert summed it up many years ago, repeat a big lie often enough and many people will believe it. The Prison Index is a healthy antidote to this.

In the 1990's the murder rate dropped by almost half while more people than ever were imprisoned. Between 1991 and 1995 the murder rate dropped from 9.8 people per 100,000 people and the number of state and federal prisoners increased by 295,412. Easy evidence that mass imprisonment reduces crime right? Afterall, "everyone knows" prisons reduce crime just like cemeteries reduce disease. Yet the murder rate dropped from 8.2 people per 100,000 in 1995 to 5.7 per 100,000 in 1999. The number of state and federal prisoners "only" increased by 219,052. If prison prevents crime why did the murder rate go down faster than the imprisonment rate? By comparison, the murder rate in 1980 was 10.2 people per 100,000.

Want the number of people in prison or on probation and parole? How many people are employed in the prison industry? How much money is spent on police, prisons and courts? How many prisoners are in private prisons? Incarceration rates by state? The race and gender of crime victims? Public perceptions of crime and punishment? These answers and much more are all contained in The Prison Index. The strength and weakness of The Prison Index is that is doesn't interpret the facts it provides or say what they mean.

This is good for people who are already knowledgeable about criminal justice issues, not so good for people who don't have a basis for comparison. But for people looking for the facts to back up their arguments and opinions, The Prison Index is ideal. I will be using it on a regular basis in my work with PLN and highly recommend it to anyone who advocates on behalf of prisoners or who simply wants to impress their friends with an amazing knowledge of crime and justice issues!

The Prison Index is co-edited by Brigette Sarabi and co produced by the PPI and Western Prison Project. PPI conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policies in the US and works to highlight race, class and gender disparities in criminal justice policy. As PPI puts it: "Our conception of prison reform is based not solely on opposing a rising rate of incarceration, but in evolving to a better way of addressing social problems than warehousing citizens in cages." WPP is a grass roots criminal justice reform group of organizations on the west coast (PLN is a member). The Prison Index costs $10 per copy for 1-9 copies plus $2 shipping. Cost for prisoners is $8.00, including shipping. Bulk order discounts are available. It can be purchased from: Western Prison Project, P.O. Box 40085, Portland, OR, 97240, (503) 335-8449,

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