Welcome to the Big House

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

A somewhat random collection of interesting facts and statistics about prisons and jails. Just in case you ever need to know…

(Image credit: Flickr user Matthias Müller)


The terms jail and prison are commonly used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. The major differences are the length of the term and the reasons for imprisonment. Jails are temporary holding facilities for people who have been recently arrested and are awaiting a court date, or for people who have been convicted of a crime but were given a relatively short sentence—usually less than a year. Prisons are for people who’ve been convicted of crimes and received sentences of more than one year. Jails are run by local governments —usually by county sheriff’s departments— while prisons are run by state or federal governments. People convicted of state laws go to state prison; those convicted of federal laws go to federal prison. There are currently about 120 federal prisons, more than 400 state prisons, and more than 3,800 jails in the United States today.


Federal prisons in the United States are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They have five different security designations: minimum, low, medium, high, and administrative.

Minimum-security prisons have no perimeter fencing. They have dormitory-style housing and are work- and program-oriented, with prisoners often working off-site and taking part in rehabilitation programs, such as for drug treatment. (They are also known as Federal Prison Camps.)

Low-security prisons have double-fenced perimeters. They have dormitory or cubicle-style housing (cubicle housing is similar to dormitory housing, but with 3- or 4-foot partitions between beds), and are also work- and program-oriented.

Medium-security prisons have double-fenced perimeters, often with electronic detection systems. Most have multi-occupant cells, rather than dormitories, and they have internal work and program operations.

High-security prisons have highly secured perimeters, usually with fences, walls, and electronic detection systems. They have both multi-occupant and single-occupant cells, and they have a much higher staff-to-inmate ratio than the lower-security facilities. They also have internal work and program operations.

Administrative prisons come in several varieties, including prisons for people with serious and/or chronic health problems and prisons for especially dangerous prisoners. This includes the highest-security prison—the only U.S. prison designated “Supermax”: the Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary outside of Florence, Colorado.

Note: Most state prisons have three security level designations—minimum, medium, and maximum security.


America’s only federal Supermax prison, commonly known as ADX Florence, was built in 1994. It is for male prisoners deemed too violent, too escape-prone, too high-profile, or too high a national security risk to be housed at a high-security prison. The facility is ringed by a 12-foot-tall concrete wall and several rings of razor wire fencing; armed guards and attack dogs patrol the perimeter. There are also pressure-sensitive alarm pads on the grounds outside the prison, as well as laser-based alarms. The prison has 490 single-occupant 7-by-12-foot cells. Prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day for their first year of confinement, but that may be gradually reduced, depending on conduct. The cells are soundproof, so prisoners cannot communicate with each other, and the cell doors are solid steel, with slots to allow items to be passed in and out. Time outside of the cells is spent in a windowless concrete gym (described as being like an empty swimming pool), with a single small skylight in its ceiling. Prisoners are never allowed outside. There is no mess hall (all other security levels have communal dining halls); all meals are brought by guards to the prisoners’ cells. Outside visitors are allowed, as with all other security levels, but visiting rights at ADX Florence are highly restricted.

Famous Prisoners: Current ADX Florence inmates include Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Soviet spy Robert Hanssen, 9/11 attack planner Zacarias Moussaoui, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and former Aryan Brotherhood leader Thomas Silverstein. (Silverstein was a convicted armed robber, but he committed three murders, including one of a prison guard, while in other federal prisons. He is deemed the most dangerous prisoner currently in the U.S. prison system, and ADX Florence was built specifically with him in mind.)


(Image credit: Christopher Ziemnowicz)

Until the late 1800s, women convicted of serious crimes in the United States were sent to men’s prisons, and were housed with men. In the latter half of the century, reform movements began advocating for separate institutions for incarcerated women, and in the 1870s, the first prisons exclusively for female inmates were built. The Indiana Woman’s Prison, built in 1873 and located just outside of Indianapolis, was the first adult female correctional facility in the United States. The Federal Industrial Institution for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, built in 1927, was the first federal prison for women.

Jails can simply house female inmates in separate cells, although most cities with large jail systems have separate wings for female prisoners.

One of the most pressing issues involving incarcerated women is providing health care to those who enter prison while pregnant, or become pregnant while in prison. More than 2,000 babies are born in U.S. prisons every year. Most are taken away from the mothers and given to family members or placed in foster homes within 48 hours of birth. But there are currently nine states that have prison nurseries in which women can live with their babies, in some cases for up to one year.


The U.S. prison population was fairly stable for most of the 20th century. Then changes in laws, especially drug laws, caused the number of inmates to rise dramatically. In 1973, there were about 200,000 people in state and federal prisons; by 2015, there were about 1.5 million. With the number of inmates in jails added to the number in prisons, the total number of incarcerated people in the United States rises to about 2.2 million, by far the most of any nation. (China is second with about 1.6 million, and Russia is third with about 870,000.)

• The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population— and about 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.

• There are about 205,000 women in American prisons and jails, the most of any country. (China comes in a distant second at around 84,000, and Russia is third with around 59,000.)

• Other types of incarceration facilities in the United States include more than 2,200 juvenile detention facilities, dozens of military prisons (such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba), and around 80 tribal jails on Native American reservations across the country.


• The country with the smallest prison population: San Marino, a tiny independent state on the Italian peninsula. It has just one jail, with a total of six cells. In 2009, there were 14 people in that jail at one time, making it an exceptionally high crime year. In a typical year, the jail is empty most of the time.

• Actor Leighton Meester, best known for her role as Blair Waldorf on the TV series Gossip Girl, was born in a federal prison in Texas, where her mother was serving time for her part in a drug-smuggling operation. Her mother was able to care for her for three months in a halfway house, after which she had to return to prison. Meester lived with her grandmother until her mother was released.

(Image credit: Pendleton Correctional Facility_FORWARD)

• In 2015, the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a state prison in Indiana, started a program in which inmates take care of cats that were adopted from a local animal shelter. The cats live in a large, revamped office with lots of windows and several cat climbing trees, and inmates have to sign up to get a shift feeding, grooming, and just hanging out with them. The program is hugely popular with the inmates. “Love will change characteristics from anybody’s tortured past,” inmate Lamar Hal told reporters. “That goes for animals and humans, really.”


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's newest volume, Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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