Bryan Caplan  

Crime Fiction versus Crime Fact

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I'd guess that fictional serial killers outnumber real serial killers by at least 100:1. After all, how many movies and t.v. shows are there about serial killers - and how many are there in real life? That's hardly surprising - serial killers are ideal dramatic villains. If they didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent them. And since they are virtually non-existent, it often is.

What's more surprising to me, though, is that fictional prison murders outnumber real prison murders by a similar ratio. As Steve Levitt explains:

In 2005, 56 prisoners were murdered. There are roughly 2 million inmates held in state prisons, meaning that the homicide rate per 100,000 prisoners last year was only 2.8. That number is less than half the rate of New York City (6.6 per 100,000) and an order of magnitude lower than Baltimore (42 per 100,000). Indeed, of the 66 largest cities in the United States, only El Paso, Tex. and Honolulu, Hawaii have lower homicide rates than the state prisons.
In short, the number of prison murders on the shows Prison Break (which I love) and Oz (which I don't) roughly adds up to the actual annual total for the nation.

What gives? Here's the voice of experience:

[P]risons are incredibly highly controlled environments. Whenever I have visited prisons, I have been amazed at how safe I felt. In contrast, when doing ride-alongs in police cars, I’ve always had the feeling that something crazy could happen at any moment.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Similarly, there may well be more fictional white murderers in Manhattan on the various "Law & Order" shows than there are in real life. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in 1987's "Bonfire of the Vanity," the media love a "hunt for the Great White Defendant," like Wolfe's bond-trader Sherman McCoy.

ZH writes:

I am not so sure about your estimates on serial killers. I remember seeing that the FBI estimates that there are between 25 and 50 active serial killers in the US at any given time. These killers could kill for a very short period of time or for a number of years. Allegedly roughly 3/4 of all serial killers are in the US, but many countries, especially third world countries, do not track serial killers or even deny they exist (which to my recollection the Soviets did for a long time), so I think we can assume that at any given time there are anywhere between 35 and 100 serial killers worldwide.
While I do not know how many serial killers appear in movies or tv shows, excluding the relatively recent (currently starting its third season) CBS TV show Criminal Minds (the entire show is centered around the FBI's tracking of serial killers), I doubt it is or ever was more than 20 or so in a given year. Given all this I am not so sure that tv and movies have so many more serial killers than actually exist.

TGGP writes:

Robert Lindsay touted the safety merits of prison here. I found it totally in keeping with his fondness for totalitarian communist states that restrict the ability of their citizenry to flee to countries they stupidly think are better just because they permit the freedom to drink and gamble and whatnot.

I don't think serial killers can be that rare, since one falls in Dexter's lap pretty much every week.

Brad Hutchings writes:

This of course begs the question that the blogger formerly known as Jane Galt would ask (that was a link). How come prison rape is the exact opposite?

King Kull writes:

Now put your last post and this one together.

Using your cultural relativism argument below, four hundred years ago and more hundreds of thousands of people in all walks of life, especially generals and police and even citizens, would be considered serial killers today.

Vlad the Impaler strung up every Turk he could find on a pike. Spaniards waded through the Incas like a scythe through wheat. Mayans killed each other for the 'fun' of it. And it wasn't just war; remember what we did during the Inquisition, and drawing and quartering was a favorite response to criminality.

What does that say about the human condition, or cultural relativism, or today's definition of a serial killer? I'm not sure we have all the answers yet.

Jose writes:

Prison safety is not only about killings in prison.

Look at incident rates of:
suicide
violence between prisoners
violence between guards and prisoners and vice versa.
self mutilation
also,
prison health care issues
overcrowding as safety issue for both prisoners and guards

Derek Keener writes:

That is the obvious. Television as we all know makes things more dramatic then they need to be. There is probably not as many serial killers in the world as everyone thinks. This is because they are not gone public and put in the news like they are in the movies. As for the homicides inside the prisons, well that is a small figure for how many prisoners there actually is, but you got to also remember there would probably be more if the prisoners could sneak more shanks inside their cell.

Derek Keener writes:

Derek Keener writes:

That is the obvious. Television as we all know makes things more dramatic then they need to be. There is probably not as many serial killers in the world as everyone thinks. This is because they are not gone public and put in the news like they are in the movies. Television blows up these serial killers as common to our society. In reality though, serial killers are not as common. As for the homicides inside the prisons, that is a small figure for how many prisoners there actually is, but you got to also remember there is alot of other violence in the prison between prisoners and guards as well. A stat that is recognized is that of deaths of guards inside the prisons.

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