Misconceptions About Prison

Orange isn’t necessarily the new black.
Orange isn’t necessarily the new black. / LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Prison is a misunderstood institution, largely due to popular culture. Do arrestees really get one (and only one) phone call? Are prisons full of murderers or people whose sole offense is marijuana possession? If your only sources are Orange is the New Black and The Shawshank Redemption (1994), you may be under some mistaken impressions.

Prison riots are a perfect example where TV and movies may mislead us. While they sometimes make for spectacularr scenes, the ratio of prison riots to incarcerated people is significantly lower than you might expect, and it’s been on the decline for years.

Additionally, some sources depict prisons as teeming with extremely violent offenders, like murderers. But almost half of the people in federal prisons are doing time for drug offenses. Approximately one-fifth of incarcerated people in those prisons are there for weapons, explosives, or arson charges, while those convicted of homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnappings account for just 3.2 percent of the incarcerated population.

A close-up of a latex-gloved hand holding up a small bag of white powder in front of a person in handcuffs.
Around 45 percent of prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. / OneSideProFoto/Shutterstock

Conversely, it isn’t really true that U.S. prisons are full of people with simple marijuana convictions. The real story is more complicated—that’s why President Biden’s pardon announcement for those with federal cannabis possession charges will do more to clear previous records than anything else.

In this episode of Misconceptions, host Justin Dodd dispels myths and answers questions to shed some light on this complex institution. Why do prisoners wear orange jumpsuits? How do correctional facilities differ around the world? And just how much do people earn working prison jobs?

Check out the whole video on the Mental Floss YouTube channel to learn more common misconceptions about prison. Be sure to subscribe to Mental Floss on YouTube for additional episodes of Misconceptions, plus much more.