Special Collection: Incarceration in the US

The US Prison system is broken.

  • Over 2.2 million people are currently in US jails or prisons. That’s greater than the population of New Mexico.
  • The US has both the highest prison population in the world, as well as the highest rate of incarceration.
  • The average annual cost to incarcerate one inmate in federal prison is about $29,000 — more than the average yearly tuition at a state university.
  • The U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled since the early 1980s: when mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drugs when into effect.
  • Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system.
(Source: Julie Borowski, “18 Facts You Need to Know About US Prisons.” Newsweek: Feb 23, 2015)

It’s important for all US citizens and residents to be aware of these staggering statistics in order to inspire real change.

Connie Rivera, an educator based in Connecticut, designed a unit called “Disproportionate Incarceration: Graphing, Proportional Reasoning, and Social Justice,” which she used with students in an adult education course. The overarching goals of the unit were for students to:

  • Understand relationships represented in graphs
  • Develop and strengthen multiplicative and proportional reasoning (and connect this reasoning to visual representations)
  • Sharpen analytic skills to create more critical consumers of data and help inform decision making
  • Create and present arguments with visual support.

For a window into all the deep thinking which went into developing and sequencing the lessons, Connie’s unit plan is available here.

She also incorporated multiple slow reveal graphs into the unit. These graphs were chosen intentionally to build an understanding of both the mathematics — interpreting graphs and focusing on multiplicative and proportional reasoning — as well as the understanding of the crisis around incarceration in the US.

The unit culminates in students creating and presenting a graph and corresponding narrative which reveals a social injustice and points out a proportional comparison.

The four graphs from the unit are shown below. Click the links for access to the slide decks and to learn more about the mathematical and socio-historical content that may surface during a class discussion.

SLOW REVEAL GRAPH #1: International Rates of Incarceration

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SLOW REVEAL GRAPH #2: Incarceration for Drug Offenses

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SLOW REVEAL GRAPH #3: Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment for US Residents Born in 2001

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SLOW REVEAL GRAPH #4: US Prison Population by Offense & accompanying paper-based activity

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