America: Incarceration Nation

In raw numbers, the American prison population is so large it's almost hard to grasp. Today the United States imprisons about 2.3 million people in every 100 adults. Read more on America's swelling prison industrial complex here.

In raw numbers, the American prison population is so large it’s almost hard to grasp. In 1980, the prison population stood at 500,000. Today the United States imprisons about 2.3 million people—1 in every 100 adults. If you toss in the number of people currently on probation and parole, the number of people living under some form of correctional control in the United States climbs to a whopping 7.4 million—a number equivalent to the population of Israel.

Combining law enforcement, courts and prisons, the U.S. criminal-justice system “consumes $212 billion a year and employs 2.4 million people, more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined,” says Robert Perkinson, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Hawai’i and author of the book “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.”

“The prison industrial complex clearly manifests all the inequities that still exist in the U.S.,” say Amanda Petteruti and Nastassia Walsh of the Justice Policy Institute. “The current system magnifies all the ways in which the U.S. fails many of the people who live within its borders.”

The New War, Same as the Old War

Ironically, more than a century ago, “private prisons were a familiar feature of American life, with disastrous consequences,” writes Ken Silverstein, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and current Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine, in his report, “America’s Private Gulag“: “Prisoners were farmed out as slave labor. They were routinely beaten and abused, fed slop and kept in horribly overcrowded cells. Conditions were so wretched that by the end of the nineteenth century private prisons were outlawed in most states.”

But in the 1980s, private prisons like Nashville, Tenn.–based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) made a comeback. The crackdown on undocumented immigrants bears a disturbing resemblance to the political furor that took hold of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s when America’s failed “war on drugs” first took center stage and ultimately herded so many of the country’s young Black and Latino men into America’s ever-expanding prison colossus.

During that time, the prison industrial-complex boom occurred largely on the state level: Politicians campaigned on law and order and made getting “tough on crime” a central part of their political identities, Perkinson says. (Click here to see how past presidents and politicians have contributed to the growth of the prison population.)

The spate of tougher sentencing guidelines that ensued sent state-prison-population growth into overdrive, but as the numbers exploded, so did the tax bill.

As a result of the sheer volume of prisoners and the prison population-growth rate, incarceration is now one of the largest costs borne by taxpayers, consuming one out of every 15 discretionary dollars, according to The Pew Center on the States.

In 2007, total state spending on corrections—including bonds and federal contributions—topped $49 billion, up from $12 billion in 1987. By 2011, continued prison growth is expected to cost states an additional $25 billion, the report said.

By the time the U.S. economy slid into a recession in 2000, many states were bursting at the seams with prisoners but lacked the funds and the political support to keep building new prisons. As a result, cash-strapped states, grappling with overcrowding, turned to the private sector for help.

This same dynamic is playing out on the federal level. Congress has nearly doubled annual spending on immigration enforcement in the last five years to $5.7 billion in 2010, with nearly $2.55 billion of that earmarked for detention and removal operations. And with the country once again in the throes of economic turmoil, and the number of immigrant detainees shooting skyward, the private sector, which claims it can build prisons faster and more cheaply and save taxpayer dollars by cutting operational costs, has stepped up to the plate.

In fact, when Damon Hininger, the chief executive officer of CCA, spoke to Wall Street analysts in May, he shared the standard script CCA uses when it lobbies legislators or governors on the pros of privatization: “Why do you want to put $200 million in the ground to build a prison? Your voters won’t give you any credit for building the prison. Yes, they want you to be tough on crime, but they’d rather have you build roads, bridges and schools and, in addition, to that we can offer you significant operational cost savings.”

Critics of private prisons argue that this perverse profit motive—which often overrides basic human rights and needs—leads private prisons to cut corners on drug rehabilitation, training, counseling and literacy programs.

“Profits by no means created the machinery of mass incarceration, no more than defense contracts invented war, but the huge profits to be made by incarcerating an ever-growing segment of our population serves the system very well,” says Judith Greene, a policy analyst with Justice Strategies, a nonprofit sentencing-reform advocacy group in New York. “Profits oil the machinery, keep it humming and speed its growth.”

Low Wages, No Training

Over the years, there have been numerous cases where private prisons have been cited, fined or shut down for stinting on food, clothing, education and medical treatment for inmates, including juveniles in detention.

“Money is the top motive and … there is an incentive to cut costs,” Black says. “You hear stories of maggots in the food, people with really bad stomach conditions because of the food. A lot of complaints about the food.”

One big area where for-profit prison firms skimp is on labor costs, according to Paul Wright, the founder and editor of “Prison Legal News,” a prison advocacy tabloid. While employees at state-run prisons get union-scale salaries, private-prison guards typically earn a meager $7 to $10 per hour.

“They have low wages and high turnover and very little in the way of benefits or training,” says Wright, who was once a prisoner himself, serving 17 years of a 25-year term for killing a cocaine dealer he was trying to rob. Today, the 43-year-old father is an advocate for prisoner rights and over the years has filed numerous legal challenges against the industry and won. “The private-prison industry is marked by corruption,” he says. “Their premise is they can run prisons cheaper than the government, but taxpayers don’t realize any of those savings. Any savings the private-prison industry obtains is basically profits for their shareholders.”

Advocates say there have been repeated instances when detainees are shuffled around from state to state, away from their families and communities and any legal services that may be able to support them. Often, they don’t have access to working phones to call for legal assistance.

“They are often very isolated,” says Black. “People are moved on average two to three times. We’ve heard of cases of people moved 11 times all over the country, and there are people who had attorneys and their attorneys could not get a change of venue to get their clients back.”

At CCA, however, the reason they give for moving prisoners out of state is pretty straightforward: profits. Hininger told investors that in states such as Hawaii and California, the cost difference between housing an inmate in state versus out of state can be huge—an average $40 a day. In California, for example, housing an inmate in the state costs $125 a day. “We are providing beds on the mainland at almost half that,” he said.

Future Looks Good for Private Prisons

Understandably, GEO Group and CCA are optimistic about their industry’s future. During an investor call, GEO Group CEO George Zoley told the audience he believes there is “enough of a growing market share that we can all share in these awards.”

“There is plenty for everybody,” he said.

The recession means federal and state governments have fewer dollars for prison construction, meaning more incarceration has to be outsourced, he said. At the same time, the federal prison system is operating at 137 percent of capacity.

In fact, CCA bragged to investors that its “clients”—meaning federal and state governments—are “notoriously poor planners” when it comes to building new prison beds. And this tends to work to their advantage—especially during a recession when state and federal coffers are tight.

“What we saw coming out of the last recession was a significant reduction in the construction of new prison beds and then when [economic] growth accelerated, they got caught flat-footed and they had to turn to the private sector,” Hininger said during the investor conference. “Even though they may have had a desire to build and manage their own prison beds themselves, they found themselves in a situation where they didn’t have that luxury. And of course, we have the salespeople and lobbyists pitching the benefits of privatization to the governors and legislators, so it’s kind of a unique dynamic. In this environment, where they are not building new beds and they’re being very short-term in their thinking, it creates a situation where they wake up one day and they don’t have beds and will have to turn to the private sector.”



  • It is so sad to know that there are people out there lurking and only concerned about making money from these prisons. What about the rehabilitation, education, and the health of these people? These statements show the very nature of America today and how government has been corrupted. These “big business” men are the ones running our country, and it makes me wonder who is really concerned about our well-being…

  • I have been in positions where I can observe first-hand what happens when private companies are contracted for services formerly performed by public employees. The company always says they can perform the same services and still make a profit by cutting waste and administrative costs. In actuality, the savings are made by cutting wages, cutting employee benefits, hiring less-qualified staff, and cutting the quality of services. When such changes affect the elderly or schoolchildren, there is a protest. Relatively few are inspired to defend the rights of the incarcerated. This is a reflection of the moral condition of U.S. society. The private prison industry does not have to hold to the same ethical standards as the public sector would in its treatment of either its detainees or its employees. It’s all about the bottom line.

  • This is sad that in todays society that this is acceptable we all need to realize that eventually if the prisoners survive they get out of prison. When the prisoner is released back to the community you have bitter uneducated person who cannot get a job and often return back to prison. It seems to me that we are not in the business of rehabilitating people. Again this is sad and it seems that society is making war on the minorities and poor people.

  • There are better solutions than private for profit prisons.
    There are still pot smokers in prisons for no real reason other than some people are against all drugs. There are non violent prisoners that should be out doing community services to pay off their crimes. We should be fining the crap out of these types and keep them working on public areas until they do the required paybacks.
    We would then have money to rehab the first time violators and the alcohol and drug addicts.
    We would then have more room for the repeat offenders and violent criminals.
    These hardcore criminals don’t deserve cable TV or other amenities. They have done things that require them to be incarcerated and while in the system should be put to work, first to benefit those they preyed upon and then for their own spaces.

  • if we spent half as much money on programs for children, teenagers, and young adults, as we do on prisons, we wouldn’t need as many prisions.
    In many parts of the USA there are no programs inspiring our children. Where are all the mentors?? I guarantee you, if we spent the money on the thngs that really mattered—-we’d need less and less prisons and we’d have a better society .

  • I doubt that there are pot smokers in prison. Pot sellers perhaps, but not smokers. Non violent, yes: Bernie Madoff and others on a much smaller scale. But, we have citizens doing those jobs you think we should give them. Take away their tv, leave the education – have them become doctors & lawyers & such, but leave the hard core locked away for the generations that follow to learn, if you can’t do the time – don’t do the crime.

  • Excellent article! What do you recommend to solve this problem? There are way too many people of all races in prison. This is scary stuff. It reminds me of the forced labor and imprisonment in MAO’s China and Stalin’s USSR. In those cases tens of millions died. To the guest who said “I doubt there are pot smokers in prison”…there are folks in prison because of pot residue found on a pipe.

  • Wow, I don’t always understand people when they say those poor prisoners, really. I mean they are the same people in our society that rape our best friends, killed our families, stole for our houses, and sold drugs to our kids. Now that I have said that I don’t hate inmates or offenders or what ever you want to call them to feel better about yourself. I work with these very guys everyday and I make sure they get what they are supose to get; like food 3 times a day and hot and cold water as needed hygine items. We also provide law books at no charge cable or satelite tv at no charge and we also make each inmate preform some kind of job on a daily basis. This would include school where we have the highest offender graduation rate of any prison be it public or private in TN. By the way I work for a private prison. I would also like to say that I got paid more money at starting pay with this private company than I did with 9 years with the very same state facility. I would have to say that the training has been just as good if not better in some cases. The last thing i want to say is their is a lot of talk about programs and private prisons not doing them well that is just not the case. Just at my facility alone we have a larege number of programs that we offer to the offenders, most of which the state does not, so please do a little bit more research before you just say bad things about my job. I just do say bad things about yours, not for any reason. Please give us a break we are the last line of defense between the criminals and your families.

  • Making comparisons to the private prisons of centuries ago and today seems to be quite a stretch. Prisoners were often handed over to manufacturing or agricultural interests in order to provide cheap labor. Today these private facilities receive certification by the American Correctional Association. An organization that also certifies state prisons. Labor is highly regulated by both state and federal law, and most private prisons have on site government contract monitors.

    To the point of profit motivated influence, you failed to mention the self- interest motivated influence being peddled by government bureaucrats and unions. In fact one of the most powerful government unions for correctional officers in California has directly lobbied for tough sentences and thrown their weight behind politicians friendly to their cause.

    Since when have we assumed bureaucrats operate from a sense of altruistic behavior? Profits for one, fat pensions and benefits for the other. Everyone has a motivation.

    Most importantly prisons, prison officials, and prison employees, public or private are not the cause of the United States prison population size. They are a symptom. The increasing level of criminogenic risk factors are the cause. The true solution is to provide more in the way of youth diversion programs, improve our ability to take kids out of bad situations, and in general prevent the development of these criminogenic risk factors. This is the solution to reducing prison population in a thoughtful a fixed manner.

  • Chuck Colson was a rich white guy who went to prison and has spent the rest of his life dedicated to helping people in prison and supporting their families. He understands it is a very bad place. We have supported him for years because (1) I spent one day in jail as a teenager and (2) I had the experience of speaking at a youth correctional facility in California and a Prison in Hawaii. Interesting note…other than me and the other speakers there was not a single white person in attendance. If we are sending eight times the average of the rest of the world we are doing something terribly wrong. We must figure out a way to stop sending so many people to prison.

  • Are the majority of the prisoners innocent of crimes? Where they falsely accused and/or had bad legal counsel? What are your solutions to prisons? Do you have proof that spending more on education, rehabilitation, etc. would solve the problem? I agree that spending on the housing of prisoners is very expensive and probably profit driven.

« Previous Article     Next Article »