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Prisoners For Profit
The Growth Industry Of Jailing People Makes Legal Reform Unlikely

By Ronald Fraser
November 14, 2004

Here is how prison policies made in Hartford and Washington take on a life of their own. Once prison operators, prison employees and community tax collectors learned they could profit from harsh, lock ‘em up drug control laws, a powerful political force was born to keep prisons full.

Inmate Overload

During the 1980s and 1990s tough-on-crime policies, especially drug control laws, overfilled America's prisons. State and federal prisons held only 315,974 inmates in 1980. By 2000 that number had skyrocketed to 1,321,137. When inmates in city and county jails are added, America's total prison population topped two million in 2002.

Prisons, however, are not reserved for violent offenders. In 2002, for example, 1,235,700 simple drug possession arrests were made in the U.S. – about one-half of them for possession of marijuana. While not all of those arrested end up behind bars, the rush to lock up non-violent offenders was, in large part, responsible for setting off America's prison building boom.

Prison Boom

A new study by Sarah Lawrence and Jeremy Travis at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington tracks how prisons became a growth industry in America. In, The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion, they found nationally that “During the last quarter of the 20th century, state prison systems grew from 592 prisons to 1,023 prisons – an increase of 73 percent.”

In 1979, nine state correctional facilities, including prisons, operated in Connecticut. By 2000, that number grew to 20, with six facilities operating in Hartford County, home of the state capital, four each in New Haven and New London Counties, three in Tolland County and two in Fairfield County.

Aboard The Gravy Train

The U.S. Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, and both federal and state agencies distribute funds based on this census data. The more prisoners counted in a town or county, the bigger will be its share of tax-funded goodies from Washington and Hartford.

This gravy train includes a slice of $200 billion a year in formula grants from Washington to all state and local governments for Medicaid, foster care, adoption assistance and 169 other programs. In addition, the same data is used to allocate state funds for community health services, road construction, law enforcement and public libraries.

Regular paychecks roll in for 7,032 prison employees in Connecticut. And don't forget the incomes of employees of private firms that directly sell food, fuel, clothing and furniture to prisons. No wonder Connecticut towns become addicted to this prison economy.

Prison Politics

Spreading prisons across Connecticut can actually perpetuate a large prison population. As more towns become economically dependent on state prisons holding more than 19,862 inmates in 2002, the greater is the likelihood grassroots support will grow for politicians who favor putting non-violent people behind bars. After all, it's in the self-interest of these towns to keep their prisons full and their local economies booming.

When prisons boom, everyone wins except the non-violent inmates and the taxpayers. Politicians in Hartford can show how tough they are on crime. Private prison operators and their investors make money. Prison guards pay off their mortgage and support local businesses. Even the local tax collector gets his cut.

Now that the jailhouse economy is going strong, the political reforms needed to abandon this old drug war mentality will be much harder, if not impossible, to get through the legislatures in Hartford and Washington.

Chances are taxpayers are stuck with the cost of keeping 2 million men and women behind bars well into the future — not because justice demands it, but because the economic benefits of the prison business are working to keep it that way.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy isues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at

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