excerpts from the article
by Julie Falk
Dollars and Sense magazine,
... The number of Americans behind bars grew from 1.4 million
in 1990 to over two million in 2003. As the prison population
swelled, the cost of incarceration grew, from $5 billion in 1978
to $40 billion in 2000.
Beginning in the 1980s, politicians in both l parties played on
the public's fear of crime to build support for a conservative
criminal justice agenda: abolishing parole, substituting mandatory
sentencing guidelines for judicial discretion, and building more
prisons. The mainstream media branded poor, young black men as
irredeemable "superpredators"; in turn, state lawmakers
created boot camps and passed statutes allowing children to be
tried as adults. Drug offenders, many of them women caught in
the web of complicated conspiracy cases, were given incomprehensibly
long sentences. New three-strikes laws mandated life sentences
for a whole host of both violent and non-violent offenders. The
federal government rewarded states with prison construction grants
for passing legislation requiring that offenders serve at least
85% of their sentences.
But mass incarceration is not only a result
of politicians catering to a fearful public. It has corporate,
bureaucratic and financial roots as well. A criminal justice system
that incarcerates over two million people-more, per capita, than
any other country in the world-carries staggering costs, but it
can also generate government revenue and corporate profits. At
the same time that the media and politicians were generating an
increased fear of crime, business interests and conservative lawmakers
began promoting incarceration as a guaranteed growth industry.
The term "prison-industrial complex" was coined by activists
and academics to describe this alliance of government and business
entities that view incarceration not as a public function but
rather as an opportunity to profit from a whole host of social,
political and economic problems.
Incarceration is big business: criminal
justice expenditures in 1999 totaled $147 billion nationwide.
For-profit prison and prison health care corporations, prison
transport services, and the construction industry, all of whom
sell their services to state corrections departments, have a direct
financial stake in this sector. The prison-industrial complex
also includes the companies and government agencies that "hire"
prison labor; the lobbyists who push for privatization of criminal
justice and more prison construction; and the Wall Street firms
like Merrill Lynch that underwrite prison construction bonds.
Millions of Americans profit from incarceration as individuals
through stock ownership or employment. In some states, unionized
prison guards are a powerful component of the prison-industrial
complex; in California the prison guards' union has been the governor's
largest contributor in his past two elections.
In spite of the current fiscal crisis
in the states, each of these interests is intact, and each one
has an incentive to help perpetuate America's colossal criminal
Of course, the states themselves are the
key players in the prison-industrial complex. While the costs
of incarceration are enormous, state and local economies and their
political representatives benefit in varying degrees by mass incarceration.
Imprisonment provides jobs, the illusion of public safety, and
Most significantly, perhaps, states have
come to use prisons as a tool for rural economic development.
In the past decade and a half, over 300 prisons have been built
in rural communities from California to West Virginia. With the
promise of jobs, tax revenue, population stabilization, and economic
growth, rural communities-devastated by the loss of agriculture
and local industry-compete for new prisons. (Towns are also induced
to build prisons because prisoners count as part of their population
in the Census; this means more government funding, and, in some
cases, more political representation.) To attract a prison, impoverished
communities offer incentives, such as tax breaks, free land, and
new infrastructure, paid for by loans in the form of multi-million
dollar bonds. As these towns routinely put themselves into debt
in order to win contracts, they become dependent on the state
or prison company to provide inmates to keep the prison open...