Prisons: The New Growth Industry

By Casa, Kathryn | National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

Prisons: The New Growth Industry


Casa, Kathryn, National Catholic Reporter


Booming population highlights racism and other failures of the justice system

More than words, it is the numbers that tell this story, yet behind every statistic is a story waiting to be told, One is about Gregory Taylor, a homeless man arrested in the wee hours of the morning after security guards spotted him trying to pry open the metal screen over the kitchen door at St. Joseph's Church in Los Angeles.

At Taylor's trial, Fr. Allan McCoy, the parish priest, testified that he had often given Taylor food and let him sleep at the church occasionally. But Taylor was convicted of burglary, and because he had two prior "strikes" against him, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The harsh punishment was handed down despite a plea by McCoy, technically the "crime victim," against imposing a three-strikes sentence. Lawyers for Taylor appealed, saying the defendant may have honestly believed he was entitled to the food because priests had regularly given him food and shelter in the past, but the 2nd District Court of Appeals in April denied the appeal in a 2 to 1 vote.

Taylor's case, many would argue, represents the excesses of a get-tough approach to crime that has caused an explosion in the U.S. prison population. It is a development that might carry in its wildest success the very arguments for its own reversal. For as America's prisons continue to bulge, giving rise to a new growth industry-- privately owned prisons--deep and serious flaws in the U.S. justice system become glaringly apparent.

With nearly 2 million people incarcerated, the growth of the U.S. prison population has dramatized the severe racial imbalances in the justice system, inequities that begin with enforcement strategies and carry through the court system and sentencing. Mandatory sentencing has stripped judges of discretionary authority that historically has resided in that position and handed it over to prosecutors. And the clamor for more punishment from a frightened electorate, say the critics, has incited politicians to weigh into the justice system repeatedly in recent years, often sacrificing long-term wisdom to vote-friendly short-term fixes.

The failure of the get-tough policies -- harsher prison terms, mandatory sentencing and relentless construction of new prisons -- is so evident that some of the country's best-known law-and-order advocates are saying "enough." They see little being accomplished apart from the warehousing of more and more people each year.

"What we've done is confuse accountability with incarceration," said Nancy Mahon, director of the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture in New York. "One of our concerns is that this heavy focus on incarceration as the way to address crime is incapacitating people without addressing the problem."

Growth of for-profit prisons

Ironically, their pleas come at a time when one of the newest players in the criminal justice arena -- the privately owned or operated prison -- is hitting its stride. Growth of the worldwide private prison industry, whose specialized Product is inmates, "has been explosive, from about $650 million in 1996 to about $1 billion in 1997," according to a 1998 study done for Congress. A 1997 study by the brokerage firm Legg Mason Wood Walker, projects private prison operations will be worth $4 billion by 2002.

The overwhelming majority of that growth has occurred in the United States.

The Private Corrections Project of the University of Florida in Gainesville notes that 10 years ago there were just under 11,000 private prison beds throughout the world. Today, that figure stands at 138,000 in 188 facilities worldwide, most of them in the United States.

In 1998, according to the project, the capacity of private prisons in the United States was 116,923 in 160 facilities owned and/or operated by 14 companies. The largest company is CCA with more than 67,000 beds in the United States. …

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