Making Crime Pay

Lots of people are getting rich on crime these days, but it's not just the lawbreaking that's bringing in the loot. Prisons and the enterprises they generate are emerging as one of the country's growth industries.

With sentencing and parole laws putting a record one million Americans behind bars for longer periods of time, prison privatization is offering a huge profit opportunity. Unprecedented strains have been placed on already overcrowded state and federal prisons, which have in turn looked to private enterprise for help. Private prisons have the capacity to hold 107,500 prisoners, and the number continues to increase.

The notion of for-profit, privately operated prisons is an old one, enjoying a modern and rapidly growing rebirth. In the last century, small portions of some state systems were privatized, and in others entire state systems were turned over to private entrepreneurs. By the 1900s, however, widespread abuse and corruption had so infected the industry that reformers pressured government to once again take control of prisons.

The privatization of prisons raises some difficult ethical, moral, and legal questions. No federal laws exist to regulate private prisons. While 26 states house 154 of these facilities, only six states currently have laws in place to oversee their operation. When pressed, prison officials and politicians alike admit that private institutions are in a constitutionally gray area.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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