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by Peter Moskos

June 15, 2010

Numbers, please

I don't normally go around asking for stats. I'll take a good anecdote over a slippery statistics any day.

And yet... I feel like an old operator at times saying, "Number, please."

Last night I was writing and had a very simple question: how many US prisoners are in solitary confinement? Seems like a simple and important question since this a free country and solitary confinement has been proven to drive people crazy.

Get this... we don't know. How can we not know? I don't think you have to be a bleeding heart to think we should know how many people are locked up in solitary confinement. Isn't not knowing a sign of the gulag?

Then by chance there's a story in USA Today about solitary. At least from the Illinois figure we can extrapolate to the rest of the nation. So I would guess between 40,000 and 80,000.

Speaking of numbers, there's this story in The Wall Street Journal about, a 54-year-old librarian in Las Cruces, New Mexico, who "spends most mornings sifting reports in the Mexican press to create a tally of drug-cartel-related killings in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico."

Why? Because nobody else is keeping track. The paper points out, "There is no official count of the people killed in Mexico's escalating drug wars—whether the victims are drug traffickers, police or civilians."

In Juarez, the tally this year already (it's June) is over a thousand. "I don't think there's a phenomenon like that in the world unless it's a declared war," Ms. Molloy said, "Ten years from now, people are going to ask 'What happened in Juárez?'"

When I see fancy stats I'm always skeptical (especially when they're based on data of questionable validity). But a basic count? A simple population figure? Solitary confinement? Murders? People... these are numbers we need!

[Update: LEAP board member Walter McKay lives in Mexico and keeps track of the numbers. He posts on the LEAP Blog. He also maintains a Google map of the murders.]


David Bratzer said...

Hi Peter, LEAP board member Walter McKay lives in Mexico and he's been doing a fantastic job keeping track of the numbers. He posts almost daily to the LEAP blog, and usually ends each post with his trademark acronym WITO. (It stands for Where is The Outrage.) Here is the latest:


He also maintains a Google map of the murders, with sub-totals for various categories at the bottom of the page:


Gory stuff, to be sure, but we need folks like Molly Molloy (the New Mexico librarian) and Walter McKay to shine a light on this issue.

PCM said...

Thanks David! You'd think I would have already known all about that.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, here's a great article on solitary confinement in New Yorker magazine, written by Atul Gawande.


PCM said...

That was indeed an excellent article.