A few months ago, I saw someone retweet a map with the title “Who houses more people – colleges or prisons?” In many Southern and Western states, the answer to this question was prisons. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post published a piece on Wonkblog with the headline, “The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live.” Taken together, these two headlines suggest that there may be more prisoners in the United States, or parts of it, than there are college students.
At least, this was my first impression. I was shocked, and bookmarked it as something to look into for a future blog post. (Hence, today’s post.) But while there are legitimate concerns about the size and scope of incarceration in the United States, it is not the case that there are more prisoners than college students. In all states, there are more individuals enrolled in colleges or universities than there are prisoners. Like many statistics, this one hinges on some key definitional issues.
Here’s what you need to know:
For more on data verification, check out this great article from Governing: “The Smell Test for Bad Data“