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What State Has the Most Prisons?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars across the country. This high incarceration rate means that there are thousands of prisons and jails spread out across the states. But what state actually has the most prisons within its borders?

Texas Has the Most State and Federal Prisons

Looking at the raw numbers, Texas has the most prisons of any state in the country. As of 2023, Texas has:

  • 112 state prisons
  • 19 federal prisons

This gives Texas a total of 131 prisons, the highest of any state. The state with the next highest number of prisons is California with 114 state and federal prisons combined.

Texas has a high number of prisons due to its large geographic size, high population, and tough-on-crime laws that have contributed to mass incarceration. The state’s prison population exploded in the 1990s after policies like mandatory minimum sentencing led to more incarcerations.

Different Measures for Ranking Prison Populations

However, simply counting the number of prisons does not give the full picture. The prison population, or the number of inmates housed in each state’s system, is another important metric.

By this measure, California actually tops the list for most inmates with around 117,000 people locked up in state and federal prisons. Texas comes in second with around 132,000 inmates.

Some other key stats on prison populations:

  • Florida has the 3rd highest prison population with around 96,000 inmates
  • Georgia has over 53,000 inmates, putting it at 4th nationwide
  • New York rounds out the top 5 with around 43,000 prisoners

So while Texas has more individual prisons, California’s rate of incarceration puts it at number one for total prisoners.

Most Prisons Per Capita: Louisiana

Looking at the number of prisons per capita (per 100,000 residents) also gives useful insight. By this metric, Louisiana has the highest concentration of prisons with 712 inmates per 100,000 residents.

This is due to Louisiana’s high incarceration rates combined with a smaller state population compared to behemoths like California and Texas.

Here are the top 5 states for most prisons per capita:

  1. Louisiana: 712 per 100,000
  2. Mississippi: 701 per 100,000
  3. Oklahoma: 694 per 100,000
  4. Georgia: 619 per 100,000
  5. Texas: 487 per 100,000

So while Louisiana doesn’t have the most overall prisoners, its high rate of incarceration means it has the most prisons based on its population size.

Private vs. Public Prisons

Most prisons in the U.S. are public, meaning they are run by governmental agencies. But the share of prisoners housed in private prisons has grown over recent decades.

Private prisons hold about 8% of the total state and federal prison population. The states that use private prisons the most are:

  • Montana (42% private)
  • New Mexico (43%)
  • Tennessee (31%)
  • Oklahoma (29%)
  • Arizona (27%)

So while private prisons house a relatively small portion of inmates nationally, some states rely heavily on privatized, for-profit facilities to hold their prisoners.

Changes in Incarceration Rates

Incarceration rates have begun falling slightly in recent years after decades of growth. From 2006 to 2016, the total prison population dropped by 7% as sentencing reforms took effect in some states.

The states that saw the biggest decreases in prison populations during that time were:

  • California (-20%)
  • Connecticut (-19%)
  • Rhode Island (-17%)
  • Vermont (-17%)
  • Michigan (-16%)

Meanwhile, other states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Arkansas saw their inmate populations rise over that period.

Going forward, further reforms and policy changes could continue to reduce incarceration rates across the country. But for now, certain states maintain very high prison populations compared to national and global norms.

A Look at Major Prisons Across the States

To understand why certain states have such high incarceration rates, it helps to look closer at some of their major prisons:

California State Prison, Los Angeles County

  • Location: Lancaster, CA
  • Security level: Minimum to Maximum
  • Capacity: Around 3,300 inmates
  • Notable statistic: Has the nation’s largest death row, with over 700 condemned male inmates

Rikers Island Jail Complex

  • Location: New York City, NY
  • Security level: City jail for defendants awaiting trial or serving short sentences
  • Capacity: Can hold up to 15,000 inmates
  • Notable statistic: Known for violence, abuse scandals, and decaying infrastructure

Louisiana State Penitentiary

  • Nickname: Angola
  • Location: Angola, LA
  • Security level: Maximum
  • Capacity: About 6,300 prisoners
  • Notable statistic: The largest maximum security prison in the U.S.

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women

  • Location: Wetumpka, AL
  • Security level: Maximum through minimum
  • Capacity: About 1,200 female inmates
  • Notable statistic: Alabama’s primary prison for women

ADX Florence

  • Nickname: Alcatraz of the Rockies
  • Location: Fremont County, CO
  • Security level: Supermax
  • Capacity: Around 410 men
  • Notable statistic: Houses some of the most high-profile criminals like El Chapo and Ted Kaczynski

This sample illustrates some of the largest and most well-known prisons that contribute to the high incarceration rates in states like California, Louisiana, and New York.

Next, let’s look at some more details around demographics and statistics within the prison system.

Demographic Breakdown of U.S. Incarceration

Along with geographic differences between states, there are also important demographic factors that influence incarceration rates across the United States. Here is an overview:

Incarceration Rates by Race and Ethnicity

  • Black Americans are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate of whites across the U.S.
  • Hispanic incarceration rates are 3 times higher than whites
  • Disproportionate policing of minority communities contributes to higher incarceration rates

Incarceration Rates by Gender

  • Over 90% of prisoners are male
  • Female incarceration rates have been increasing in recent decades but remain below male rates
  • There are unique challenges faced by women prisoners compared to men

Youth Incarceration

  • Over 48,000 juvenile offenders are housed in detention facilities and prisons nationally
  • 70% of imprisoned youth are held for nonviolent offenses
  • U.S. Supreme Court rulings have changed sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders in recent years

Incarceration of the Elderly

  • About 10% of prisoners (over 200,000) are over the age of 55
  • Special health and hospice care required for aging prison populations
  • Early release policies have aimed to reduce elderly incarceration

Mental Health

  • Over 40% of prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder
  • Between 25-40% have serious mental illnesses like bipolar, schizophrenia, major depression
  • Questions around criminalization of mental illness and proper treatment while incarcerated

Understanding these demographic factors provides greater context around mass incarceration across different communities in the United States.

Trends and Patterns in U.S. Prison Population Growth

The prison population has exploded over the past four decades, growing over 500% since the early 1970s. Here is an overview of the major trends:

Prison Population Growth Since 1970s

Year Prison Population
1972 200,000
1985 500,000
1990 1 million
2000 1.5 million
2008 1.6 million
2018 1.5 million
  • The prison population grew rapidly during the 1980s and 90s due to stricter sentencing policies
  • Growth leveled off since 2008 as reform efforts took hold in some states

Sources of Prison Population Growth

  • “Tough on crime” policies mandating strict minimum sentences for drug offenses
  • Truth-in-sentencing laws requiring offenders to serve most of their sentences
  • Increased enforcement of nonviolent crimes
  • Long sentences with limited parole opportunities
  • High recidivism rates leading to re-incarceration

Recent Prison Population Declines

  • Dozens of states have enacted some sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration
  • California has been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce overcrowding
  • Budget pressures during the Great Recession led some states to reduce incarceration
  • Public opinion has shifted on harsh drug enforcement policies

While total numbers remain historically high, many expect continued reforms and policy changes to further reduce incarceration and reverse the growth seen since the 1970s.

Why does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world?

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate globally due to a few key factors:

  • Harsh sentencing policies like mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws
  • High rates of violent crime compared to other developed nations
  • The domestic War on Drugs which incarcerated millions for nonviolent offenses
  • Lack of social safety net and mental healthcare options that lead more to criminal activity
  • For-profit prison models that incentivize maintaining high inmate populations
  • Political “tough on crime” rhetoric that promoted stricter laws

What is the racial disparity in U.S. incarceration rates?

There is a huge racial gap in U.S. incarceration:

  • Black Americans are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate of whites
  • Hispanics are locked up at nearly triple the white incarceration rate
  • 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point in their lifetime

This massive disparity is tied to institutional racism, concentrated policing in minority communities, unequal access to legal resources, mandatory minimums for crimes like crack cocaine that disproportionately impact black Americans, and other systemic biases built into the justice system.

How much does it cost to imprison someone?

The average cost to incarcerate one federal prisoner in the U.S is over $30,000 per year. For states, the average is around $33,000 per inmate annually. Some states like New York spend over $60,000 per prisoner each year.

This adds up to over $80 billion per year spent on corrections budgets across federal, state, and local governments. Reducing mass incarceration could save taxpayers billions.

What are the effects of parental incarceration on children?

When a parent goes to prison, it takes an immense toll on their children. Effects can include:

  • Increased likelihood of living in poverty or foster care
  • Higher risk of mental health issues like depression
  • Developmental delays and poor performance in school
  • Higher rates of future incarceration

With over 5 million children affected by parental imprisonment at some point, reducing incarceration rates could have generational benefits for families.

How can we reform the prison system?

Some ways to reform prisons and reduce incarceration include:

  • Rolling back mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws
  • Decriminalizing nonviolent drug offenses
  • Increasing oversight and accountability for police departments
  • Improving reentry programs and reducing recidivism
  • Expanding access to mental health resources and addiction treatment
  • Raising the age of criminal responsibility for juveniles
  • Exploring alternative models beyond for-profit prisons

There are many policy levers that could enact change and reverse the decades-long trend of prison population growth in America.


The United States stands apart from the rest of the world in its rate of mass incarceration. With over 2 million people behind bars and thousands of prisons spread across the states, entire communities have been devastated by harsh criminal justice policies enacted in recent decades.

While no single state can be pinned as the most responsible, prison populations exploded nationwide as lawmakers from California to Louisiana to New York and everywhere in between took a tough stance on sentencing. Rethinking this approach could allow the U.S. to reduce incarceration rates while still keeping communities safe.

There are no easy answers for such a complex situation. But looking at the key factors that drove prison growth, from mandatory minimums to systemic racism, provides a roadmap for reform. The conversation has already begun in many states, leading to gradual declines in prison populations.

Perhaps this reflects a change in public attitudes, a recognition that locking up millions has not created an equitable society. While state prisons will remain a fixture for the foreseeable future, the days of unchecked mass incarceration may be numbered. Analysts will watch closely in the coming years to see if substantive change takes hold.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.