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The care and feeding of one million American prisoners is a big
business. Privately managed prison
beds are increasing about 35 percent a year, and the demographics
of inmates are changing rapidly.
More prisoners are women or elderly, and have drug problems,
AIDS, or other chronic health
conditions. The number of prisoners seems certain to
increase--but even if it doesn't, the cost of
running prisons will.
Prisons are often referred to as "the big house," but "full
house" may be a better term. In 1994, 1
million people lived in America's federal and state prisons.
Another 3.7 million were on probation or
parole, and half a million were confined to locally run jails.
The grand total: more than 5.1 million
adults were under some form of correctional supervision two years
ago. That is more than the
population of Wisconsin.
The number of state and federal prisoners has more than tripled
since 1980, due in large part to a
national wave of tough anti-drug laws. While those laws removed
thousands of drug dealers from
America's streets, they also created a huge and rapidly growing
industry funded by American
taxpayers. The private sector is heavily involved in prison
management, and prison privatization is
one of the country's hottest industries. Some companies manage
entire prisons, while others
specialize in particular operations such as health or food
services. And manufacturers prosper when
they provide the many additional necessary items, from uniforms
and bedding to surveillance and
If current trends continue, the prison population will increase
rapidly in the next decade. Even
without growth, the current prison population would still be much
more expensive to maintain in the
Offenders who are in prison for drug-related crimes are more
likely to have serious health problems.
The prison population is also aging. These trends will increase
prisons' health-care costs, but they are
dwarfed by the continuing consequences of tough sentencing laws.
Until drug abuse stops or drug
laws change, the prison population bomb will keep ticking away.
The number of inmates in state and federal prisons more than
tripled, from 319,600 in 1980 to
999,800 in 1994, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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Penology, Incarceration in the United States, Prison, Private prisons in the United States, Prison reform, Private prison, Prisonindustrial complex
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