Fueled by “get tough on crime” policies, incarceration rates in several developed countries have increased considerably in recent years. For instance, Australia’s incarceration rate increased from 89 per 100,000 persons in 1992 to 163 per 100,000 in 2004, while Great Britain’s incarceration rate grew from 90 per 100,000 in 1992 to 141 per 100,000 in 2004, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London. The increase in incarceration rates has been most prominent in the United States; as of mid-year 2005, there were 2,186,230 inmates behind bars, with two-thirds in federal or state prisons and onethird in local jails, as cited by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006). Approximately 60 percent of those incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of any crime. The United States incarceration rate in 2005 was 730 per 100,000, a rate that is higher than even the Russian Federation (at 581 per 100,000). In fact, the United States imprisons approximately 500,000 more individuals than China, which has a population five times greater than the United States. Furthermore, while the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The United States diverts substantial economic resources to the criminal justice system. In 2003, the country spent $185 billion for police protection, corrections, and judicial activities, representing a 418 percent increase since 1982 (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). In the same year, the justice system employed nearly 2.4 million individuals.
While some believe that the recent increases in incarceration rates are related to increases in crime, most scientific studies of this issue find no such relationship. Instead, fear of crime and the demonization of criminals by the media and politicians have led to support for policies that result in more people being incarcerated, and for longer periods of time. These policies include mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes and you’re out” laws, truth-in-sentencing legislation (which requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences), and the war on drugs.
Among the major drivers and beneficiaries of these policies and the resultant incarceration binge are constituents of the prison-industrial complex. These growing incarceration rates have created a powerful coalition of vested-interest groups with stakes in keeping prisons full and building more of them. These interests include private prison companies and individuals who lobby for them; financial institutions that underwrite loans and bond issues to finance prison construction; companies involved in the construction, operation, and maintenance of correctional facilities; corporations that use prisoners as a cheap source of labor; state and local politicians with prisons in their districts, or who covet such facilities due to the presumed economic development they will stimulate; individuals employed in the criminal justice system, in particular those who serve as correctional officers in prisons; and companies that provide products and services such as food, medical, transportation, furniture, and telephone services to prisons. Under the laws of several states, prisoners can make only collect phone calls, and this situation results in considerable profit for both states and major telephone companies, with the latter charging up to six times the regular rates plus an automatic “connect fee” of $1.50 to $3.00 per inmate call. AT&T estimates that nationally, inmates place $1 billion per year in long-distance calls, and profits from contracts with MCI and GTE netted the state of California more than $16 million in 1998, while the state of New York received $21.2 million from phone-call commissions in 1997, according to Joseph T. Hallinan in his study Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation (2001). There is also a burgeoning specialty industry that sells fencing, handcuffs, drug detectors, protective vests, and other security devices to prisons.
Given the considerable profits enjoyed by corporations enriched by the booming prison industry, several communities have competed to host prisons on the assumption that prisons will generate local economic activity in the form of jobs and tax revenues. Recent research, however, casts doubt on this assumption. Prison towns often end up with a net decline in employment, notes Gregory Hooks et al. in Social Science Quarterly (2004). This suggests that the benefits are being reaped by distant corporations, not the local communities. This is largely because prisons hire relatively few local employees and because unpaid inmate work crews often compete with local residents for low-wage jobs.
Similar to the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex has an internal logic that allows it to benefit and expand regardless of whether it is a success or failure. If the United States loses a war, it requires more spending to win the next war; if the United States wins a war, it requires more spending to ensure that it keeps on winning. In a similar fashion, if crime is increasing, we need more prisons to lower crime rates; if crime is decreasing, we need more prisons to ensure it continues to decrease (Donziger 1996).
Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2006. Nation’s Prison and Jail Population Grew 2.6 Percent during 12 Months That Ended June 30, 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/pjim05pr.htm.
Donziger, Stephen R., ed. 1996. The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission. New York: HarperPerennial.
Hallinan, Joseph T. 2001. Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. New York: Random House.
Hooks, Gregory, Clayton Mosher, Thomas Rotolo, and Linda Lobao. 2004. The Prison Industry: Carceral Expansion and Employment in U.S. Counties, 1969–1994. Social Science Quarterly 85 (1): 37–57.
International Centre for Prison Studies. (n.d.) London: King’s College London. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/rel/icps/world-prison-pop-seventh.pdf.
U.S. Department of Justice. 2006. Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 2003. Washington, DC. http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/jeeus03.txt.