You might think that a beautiful day in spring when the trees and daffodils are blooming is a difficult time to stay inside and talk about incarceration.

But about 150 people recently joined a distinguished panel on just such a day in Pittsburgh to talk about the prisons and jails in the city, the state and the nation.

The statistics are breath-taking. In the U.S.:

  • As of 2011, 2.2 million people were incarcerated in the United States, the highest number in the world.
  • The black-to-white ratio is almost 6 to 1.
  • $52 billion was spent on prisons and prisoners in that year.

In Pennsylvania:

  • Nearly 85,400 were in prisons and jails in 2011.
  • The black to white ratio was 9 to 1.

The program was the brainchild of Pittsburgh photographer Mark Perrott, whose book “E Block” chronicles the words written by prisoners on the cell walls in Pittsburgh’s Western Penitentiary (now the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh.) You can see some of those photos here.

Some of the issues that came up:

  • The number of women in prisons is increasing at nearly double the rate of men.
  • With an extremely high number of prisoners doing time for drug offenses, the Justice Department has asked that prisoners sentenced under tough drug guidelines apply for clemency.
  • The growing number of elderly prisoners have meant larger hospital and hospice wards in prisons.
  • There are 10 times more prisoners who are mentally ill behind bars than in mental hospitals.
  • Pennsylvania has more juveniles incarcerated than any other state.
  • Corrections officials in New York City and in Colorado have spoken out about the need to look more closely at the impact of solitary confinement.

You can watch the live-stream video of the program here. And PublicSource will continue to cover topics involving criminal justice and public safety.

A special thanks to Mark Perrott and the panel he assembled:

John Edgar Wideman, award-winning author of “Brothers and Keepers,” a memoir of Wideman and his brother, who is in prison at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh.

William DiMascio, former Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Bill Stickman, former Warden of Pittsburgh’s Western Penitentiary.

David A. Harris, attorney and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Bill Moushey, former Director of Point Park’s Pittsburgh Innocence Institute.

Reach Sharon Walsh at 412-681-5685 or

Pennsylvania’s prisons (2011)

Source: 2011 Annual Statistical Report from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Prison population by gender
Prison population by age
Prison population by race
Prison population by gender and offense
Prison population by gender and offense
Includes voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and vehicular homicide.
Prison population by gender and offense
Includes forcible rape, statutory rape and other sexual offenses.
Prison population by gender and offense
Includes robbery, burglary and theft.
Prison population by gender and offense
Prison population by gender and offense
Prison population by gender and offense

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.