You may have heard the joke: By the year 2000, everyone in the United States will either be in prison or working for one.
But prisons and the jobs and spinoff
businesses they create are no joke. Prison-construction budgets
nationwide topped $5 billion in 1994.
California, annual spending on prisons now surpasses the amount
spent on the state's vaunted university system, according to the
Los Angeles Times. National prison directories, which list lock-ups
around the country, are filled with ads from food and cigarette
companies, architecture and engineering firms, and others who make
a living from the prison industry.
construction is an ever-increasing flow of criminals. Stricter
sentencing requirements coupled with a war on drugs started by
former President Ronald Reagan have pushed the numbers of prisoners
from 196,000 in 1970, to 316,000 in 1980, to some 1.1 million
today. More than 1,200 people join the ranks of the incarcerated
every week, according to the U.S. Justice
Seemingly overnight, private prison
companies have risen to take advantage of overcrowded state and
federal prison systems. Touting jobs for rural communities and
lower costs per prisoner to state and federal government, private
jails have increased rapidly since the mid-1980s. Eighty-eight
private facilities now hold nearly 50,000 prisoners. Texas leads
the nation with 33 private facilities; in the West, New Mexico and
Arizona have three each, and Colorado, two.
some, the meteoric rise of the prison industry is reminiscent of
the rise of the military/industrial complex following World War
"Just as the defense industry had an
entrenched interest in having us believe that the Soviet Union
posed a deadly threat long after it really did, so the prison
industry has a vested interest in maintaining fear of crime," says
Carolyn Haynes of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
"People are scared, and the media and politicians feed into it. It
doesn't matter that crime rates have gone down over the past 10
years, or that 80 percent of the kids in juvenile centers have
never physically hurt anyone."
activist and businessman Tom Huerkamp says he has noticed a
dramatic change in law enforcement in Delta County, Colo. "When I
came here in 1966, the county had about 22,000 people and we had an
eight-cell jail and no more than a half-dozen people involved with
law enforcement. Today we have 24,000 people, a $4.5 million jail
and 39 employees. People haven't changed. What has changed is that
this whole law enforcement/prison thing has become business."
The number of inmates in Colorado jumped from
3,570 in 1984 to more than 10,500 today, and the number of state
employees watching and caring for those prisoners increased from
1,263 to 3,556. During the same period, the annual budget of the
Department of Corrections quadrupled from $56 million to more than
$231 million. The budget doesn't include construction; the Colorado
Legislature recently passed a $200 million prison construction
Says Huerkamp, "It's a growth industry. So
what do (the entrenched powers) do? Increase the demand, pass
tougher criminal laws, hold prisoners longer and get the
legislature to spend money on expansions and new facilities."