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Knowing what we don't know, pt.2

There are many other areas where statistics are missing. We do not authoritatively know how many individuals are held in solitary confinement. This is very detrimental form of punishment, but we know little about the actual practice.

Most of those incarcerated in the prisons of Illinois and across the nation will eventually be released. They will return to the towns and communities and we will all have to live with them. Yet we understand little about how many have been subjected to solitary confinement or as it is sometimes called, administrative detention. 

Nor do we track much of what goes on in prisons, treating the facilities as if they all had one-way doors, from which no one ever returns. But most inmates will complete their sentence and will begin their lives outside of prison bars.

Violence behind prison walls is not well understood. Prison rape must be reported, due to a federal law, but most other violence is not reflected in those reports. Anecdotal evidence would suggest there is a significant problem with violence from the staff, but without a comprehensive collection of statistics, we really have no idea as to the scope of the problem

It would be in society's broader interest to know how various behaviors and activities within prisons affected inmates. And when we do not even know the barest outlines of the statistics, it is difficult to make informed decisions. When politicians and policy makers choose, in the absence of useful information, they may rely on "gut instinct" or prejudice and bias.

The cost of not knowing what we don't know is not insubstantial, because choices will be made. And the consequence of those choices are paid directly by those incarcerated. But secondary costs are paid by everyone.

Source:, "The Missing Statistics of Criminal Justice," Matt Ford, May 31, 2015

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