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January 24, 2004


By Alan Elsner

After 25 years of explosive growth in the U.S. prison system,
is this country finally ending its love affair with
incarceration? Perhaps, but as in any abusive relationship,
breaking up will be hard to do.

Since 1980 the U.S. prison and jail population has quadrupled
in size to more than 2 million. In the process, prisons have
embedded themselves into the nation's economic and social
fabric. A powerful lobby has grown up around the prison system
that will fight hard to protect the status quo. There are some
positive signs, as set forth in Vincent Schiraldi's Nov. 30
article in the Outlook section. Fiscal pressures may indeed
slow the growth of the vast U.S. prison system. But reversing
the trend of the past quarter-century is another matter.

Major companies such as Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and
Corrections Corp. of America employ sophisticated lobbyists to
protect and expand their market share. The law enforcement
technology industry, which produces high-tech items such as the
latest stab-proof vests, helmets, stun guns, shields, batons
and chemical agents, does more than a billion dollars a year in

With 2.2 million people engaged in catching criminals and
putting and keeping them behind bars, "corrections" has become
one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, employing more
people than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford and
Wal-Mart, the three biggest corporate employers in the country.
Correctional officers have developed powerful labor unions. And
most politicians, whether at the local, state or national
level, remain acutely aware that allowing themselves to be
portrayed as "soft on crime" is the quickest route to electoral

In the past two decades, hundreds of "prison towns" have
multiplied -- places that are dependent on prisons for their
economic vitality. Take Fremont County, Colo., where the No. 1
employer is the Colorado Department of Corrections, with nine
prisons, and No. 2 is the Federal Bureau of Prisons with four.
Towns that once might have hesitated about bringing a prison to
town now rush to put together incentive packages. Abilene,
Tex., offered the state incentives worth more than $4 million
to get a prison. The package included a 316-acre site and 1,100
acres of farmland adjacent to the facility.

Buckeye, 35 miles west of Phoenix, was a sleepy little desert
outpost with a population of about 5,000 until it competed
successfully for a major state prison. After that the state
upgraded the road leading to the town and the population began
to explode. A new movie theater and a $2.5 million swimming
complex opened. Because Buckeye was sitting on ample supplies
of water, it suddenly became prime real estate. Mayor Dusty
Hull reckons the town will reach 35,000 in five years.

According to the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research
Service, 245 prisons sprouted in 212 rural counties during the
1990s. In West Texas, where oil and farming both collapsed, 11
rural counties acquired prisons in that decade. The Mississippi
Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country, got seven new
prisons. Appalachian counties of Virginia, West Virginia and
Kentucky built nine, partially replacing the collapsing
coal-mining industry. If the prisons closed, these communities
would quickly collapse again.

When states try to cut prison budgets, they quickly come up
against powerful interests. In Mississippi in 2001, Gov. Ronnie
Musgrove vetoed the state's corrections budget so he could
spend more money on schools. The legislature, lobbied by
Wackenhut, overrode the veto.

In fiscally distressed California, about 6 percent of the state
budget goes to corrections. Yet no senior politician, including
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has dared challenge the power of
the 31,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers
Association, which pours a third of the $22 million it collects
each year in membership dues into political action committees.

Even efforts by some states to speed up the release of
nonviolent offenders are unlikely to reduce the total prison
population by much. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found
that two-thirds of those released from prison on parole are
re-arrested within three years. Released prisoners face
institutional barriers that make it difficult for them to find
a place in society. Welfare reform legislation in 1996 banned
anyone convicted of buying or selling drugs from receiving cash
assistance or food stamps for life. Legislation in 1996 and
1998 also excluded ex-felons and their families from federal

Most inmates leave prison with no money and few prospects. They
may get $25 and a bus ticket home if they are lucky. Studies
have found that within a year of release, 60 percent of
ex-inmates remain unemployed. Several states have barred
parolees from working in various professions, including real
estate, medicine, nursing, engineering, education and
dentistry. The Higher Education Act of 1998 bars people
convicted of drug offenses from receiving student loans.
Prisoners are told to reform but they are given few tools to do
so. Once they are entangled in the prison system, many belong
to it for life. They may spend stretches of time inside prison
and periods outside but they are never truly free.

Last year Robert Presley, secretary of California's
correctional agency, noted that after several years of decline,
crime rates were rising again and his state's prison population
had resumed its growth. Maximum-security inmates made up the
fastest-growing segment. Despite the building boom of the
previous 20 years, prisons were at an average of 191 percent of
capacity. This hardly sounds like a recipe for a falling prison

Alan Elsner is author of the forthcoming book "Gates of
Injustice: America's Prison Crisis."

2004 The Washington Post Company