US Federal and State Prisoners Annual Series from 1925

face of a prisoner

In 1925, the U.S. Census Bureau began an annual series of statistics on prisoners in state and federal prisons and reformatories. The Census Bureau transferred responsibility for the series in 1949 to the Bureau of Prisons in the U.S. Department of Justice. Within the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics subsequently took over managing and reporting prisoner statistics for state prisons and the federal Bureau of Prisons. The relevant statistics are now known as National Prisoner Statistics.

Careful study of prisoner statistics requires attention to technical definitions. National Prisoner Statistics provide prisoner counts are at calendar year-end. Reporting of National Prisoner Statistics is now usually for prisoners under specific jurisdictions, rather than prisoners in custody within particular jurisdictions. That distinction matters because some jurisdictions hold in custody prisoners under the authority of other jurisdictions. In addition, the federal Bureau of Prisons is an integrates short-term (jail) and long-term (prison) incarceration. The state prison systems in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Alaska, and Hawaii are similarly integrated with jails. For integrated jail-prison systems, National Prisoner Statistics includes incarcerated persons who in other systems would be identified as jail inmates.

Federal prisoners statistics are also available in annual reports of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). From 1930 to 1941, that annual report was titled Federal Offenders. As that title suggests, Federal Offenders focused on statistics concerning persons held in federal prisons. From 1943 to 1963, the annual report was titled Federal Prisons. It was then retitled Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistical Report, or just Statistical Report. From 1988 to 2010, the annual report was titled State of the Bureau. Publication of the annual report subsequently ceased. The Bureau of Prisons now makes a variety of information available in more ephemeral forms on its website.

An annual report of federal criminal justice statistics has been published since 1984. From 1984 to 2004, the annual report was entitled Compendium of Federal Justice Statistics for the corresponding year. From 2005 to 2010, the title was shortened to Federal Justice Statistics. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has a program entitled Federal Criminal Case Processing Statistics under the Federal Justice Statistics Resource Center (FJSRC). The site provides a wide variety of federal criminal justice statistics from 1998.

Houses of correction and workhouses and country prisons hold some long-term prisoners. Some larger institutions of this type are occasionally included in lists of penitentiaries or prisons holding felons. The state of Delaware has had no state prison. The Detroit House of Correction in Michigan has held some state prisoners.

Some states, particularly southern states, have leased convicts for work on railroads and plantations or held prisoners in various agricultural work camps. Prison population totals reported in such cases have as the city field “prison system,” “leasees,” road camps, state camps, or camps and plantations. Sometimes totals reported for a state prison in a city include prisoners in these other institutions. The Bureau of the Census report, Prisoners in State and Federal Prisons and Reformatories 1928, separates a prison’s inmates between inmates in custody “in institution” and inmates “in custody outside institution.”

Statistics are almost totally missing from the National Prisoner Statistics for Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia prior to 1950. Langan (1988) indicates coverage (and prisoner totals) by state over time. For independent, facility-by-facility descriptions and a population series for selected years from 1910 to 1929, see Garrett and MacCormick (1929). Those data, and much additional data, are available in the Prison Library Dataset, which includes prisoner population data for prisons, 1868-1940..

Federal and state prisoners statistics in workbook compilations:

Official sources on state-level year-end total counts of prisoners:

Official sources on state-level prisoner admissions by race:

Official sources on state-level prisoner admissions by sex:

Early annual publication series online (other years exist in print):

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