Could Manhattan house the U.S. prison populace?

Penal colony of the future? Avco Embassy Pictures

I'm not advocating that we turn Manhattan Island into a penal colony, but a recent rewatch of John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" got me thinking: Given the massive swell in the U.S. Prison population, could even the film's fictional solution to prison overcrowding handle the numbers?

Just to refresh, the 1981 classic portrays a post-WW3 dystopian future in which the entire Island of Manhattan serves as the nation's only prison. The bridges and tunnels are all either gone or littered with mines, and a containment wall encloses the island on all banks. No one gets out. No one escapes. All the inmates serve life sentences in the lawless ruins of a once great metropolis -- a sentence so grim that inbound prisoners all get the choice of assisted suicide instead.

Population Boom: Reality and Fiction

According to the film, this drastic penal strategy becomes necessary due to a 400 percent swell from America's 1979 prison population. As American prisons at the time held roughly 450,000 inmates, we're talking an initial population of 1.8 million inmates [Source: Goodenow]. Granted, we can only guess at how many took the suicide option or subsequently died in the gang-ruled streets of Manhattan, but this gives us a rough number to play with.


If Manhattan Island contained 1.8 million inmates in fictional 1979, then how many resided there by the film's fictional 1997 setting? It's difficult to say, but real-life 1997 boasted a U.S. prison population of 1.24 million inmates, falling somewhat short of the fictional mark [source: CNN].

Today, however, the disheartening reality trumps the dystopian fiction. As of 2014, U.S. prisons contain an all-time high of 2.4 million people, exceeding the gang hoards of the Manhattan penal colony of fictional 1997 [source: Wagner]. Hell, it also exceeds the real-life populations of countries such as Qatar, Namibia and Iceland.

Perhaps the fictional prison population of Manhattan Island would have outpaced our reality by 2014 as well -- but I suspect the increased mortality rate would prevent that. Just consider that Russian penal colonies report 464 deaths from all causes per 100,000 inmates compared to 251 deaths per 100,000 inmates in U.S. State prisons [Source: Kramer]. You can expect that rate would be far higher in a gang-ruled wasteland.

Population Density

Finally, to return to the titular question: Could Manhattan actually house the current U.S. prison population of 2.3 million people?

) -- and that's not high at all.

We're talking about 22.96 square mile (59.5 km2) island containing 1.636 million people as of 2013. That's an overall population density of 70,825.6 per square mile (27,345.9/km2) -- and that's not high at all.

The most densely populated city in the world, Manila, boasts a population density of 111,002 per square mile (42,857/km2). Dozens more cities make the high-density list above Manhattan. So I think there's plenty of room for more inmates on Manhattan Island, especially when you factor in previous-unoccupied places like businesses, office buildings, museums, subway tunnels and Central Park.

American prisons haven't slipped to "Escape From New York" levels of anarchy and cruelty, but the current numbers are staggering. The so-called prison-industrial complex is disturbing. Where's it all headed?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.