January 24, 2004 - The Washington Post

America's Prison Habit

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 business.

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 defeat.

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 housing.

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 population.

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

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