Justice USA

excerpted from

"The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry."

edited by Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pens and Paul Wright's


With a drop in crime in recent years, it's a triumphant time for American justice. Just how are we doing?

1. Incarceration, once a government task, is now an industry -- with a vested interested in keeping people there. How fast is this industry growing? In 1987 only five prisons were owned and managed by private firms. Just a decade later the industry had swelled to more than 100 prisons -- 62,000 beds -- which now controls some 5% of the "market." The prison industry is becoming one of the fastest growth industries in the country. Profits are soaring. The share value of Corrections Corporation of America, a huge private prison firm, rose from $8 in 1992 to $30 by January 1997. Wackenhut Corporation, second only to the Corrections Corporation America in the prison industry, was ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 200 small businesses in the country. Esmor, another private prison company, saw its revenues skyrocket from $4.6 million in 1990 to $25 million in 1995.

2. While the crime rate is dropping, more and more people are being incarcerated. In just 15 years, from 1982 to 1997, the prison population mushroomed from 300,000 to 1.5 million prisoners. Today, the number of Americans under correctional control of prisons, jails, parole, or probation has passed 5 million.

3. Building one prison-bed space costs, on average, $54,209. Annual housing costs to incarcerate prisoners average $20,000 - $30,000, comparable to tuition at many ivy league colleges.

4. The color of justice: Although less than 15% of the American population consists of African-Americans, 46% of all prisoners in the United States are black. Under California's "three-strikes law" African-Americans are sent to prison 13 times more often than whites. Although only 7% of the California population is black and blacks commit only 20% of all felonies, 43% of prisoners sentenced under this law are black. Of the more than 3,000 men and women on death row in the United States, 40% are black.

5. But what about rehabilitation? Prisons are about control, using increasingly punitive measures like stun guns that deliver high voltage shocks. Television is permitted in most prison cells -- while books are hard to get or banned. For the latest trend in rehabilitation, look no further than Alabama: it now uses chain gangs, something that had virtually disappeared in the United States since the early 1960s.

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