This article from N+1 is worth a read. Christopher Glazek takes a detailed look at the statistics and the ways they get reported, or don't get reported, in prisons.
The main argument:
Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
That's a pretty major thing to say, and Glazek's got the numbers to back it up. The big deal here is that a lot of crimes in prison simply haven't been recorded prior to the last couple of years. For example:
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.
Pretty stunning stuff, if you haven't been looking at it dead-on before this. From there, Glazek shifts into a history of the U.S. prison system that points out how things have gotten to be this way - a history that ties into the "Caging of America" post I linked to at the top of this post, but focuses more heavily on the implementation of three-strikes laws, possession laws, and similar harshly punitive measures. Glazek ties these laws, convincingly, to political concerns:
There followed a thirty-five-year period of “tough” crime laws. They began in New York State, with Nelson Rockefeller, the liberalish governor who, having failed three times to secure the Republican presidential nomination, decided he would make drug policy his peace offering to the party’s right wing. Previously an advocate of treatment programs and community supervision, Rockefeller abruptly changed course in 1973, innovating harsh mandatory minimum sentences for both the sale and possession of illegal drugs. In the next thirty years, New York’s prison population sextupled, climbing from 13,400 prisoners in 1973 to 71,500 prisoners in 2000.
The article concludes with a call not for prison reform, but for prison abolition, and it moves to a number of potentially fiery arguments as a result of that move. Convinced that the system is too fundamentally broken to be fixed, Glazek suggests that those in favor of abolishing it will need to make new allies and let go of old agendas - gun control and the death penalty being two of the most potentially divisive issues he brings up.
This is a significant article, and one that you should read if you're interested in the workings of the US incarceral system. Even if you don't agree with his conclusions, Glazek makes some very important points, only a few of which I've covered here.