But prisons and the jobs and spinoff businesses they create are no joke. Prison-construction budgets nationwide topped $5 billion in 1994.
In 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.
Driving the 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 Department.
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.
For some, the meteoric rise of the prison industry is reminiscent of the rise of the military/industrial complex following World War II.
"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."
Anti-prison 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 bill.
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."