A recent CNBC news story titled “Billionaires Behind Bars; Inside America’s Prisons” highlighted some aspects of the $74 billion prison industry. It is no secret that America incarcerates more prisoners than any other country in the world. Could it be that the people of our society are worse than any other country or is that our criminal justice system has unrealistic fears about crime and ignores alternative sanctions in our seemingly zealous quest for incapacitation as an answer to the nation’s crime rate?

While researchers try to figure out the reason billions of dollars continue to pour into the prison industry each year. The need has given rise to publically traded private prison companies like Correction Corporation of America (CXW) currently trading at $26.18 and the GEO Group (GEO) currently trading at $21.65. The rise of these stocks tells the story of just how big the correction industry is.

Nationwide, crime trends have been declining over the last several years’ while prison populations grew.   These populations may not be growing at the explosive rates experienced in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but they still continue to grow despite nationwide drops in serious crime.

The current number of people incarcerated by the nation’s largest detention system the Federal Bureau of Prisons is 217,859. This is up from 216,904 last year, 211,108 in 2010 and up from 209,000 just 3 years ago. Private correction companies emerged in 1984 to assist governments which had outdated and overcrowded buildings and explosive populations.

In many cases they provide a viable option for cash strapped governments who can’t afford the high wages and facility upkeep associated with bulging prison populations. The fastest segment of the inmate population to grow within the Federal Bureau of Prisons is immigration detention with an estimated 30,000 prisoners half of which are held in private detention facilities according to the recent CNBC reports.

The next lucrative frontier for private correction vendors is the arena of inmate healthcare. Inmates are mandated under federal law to receive adequate healthcare while incarcerated. Some facilities charge a small co pay for elective sick call visits to the infirmary, but with many inmates indigent the revenue is more symbolic than financially advantageous.

With the spiraling costs of medical care and an aging inmate population this obligation to provide healthcare to all inmates in custody is wreaking fiscal havoc. As a result insurance companies have developed inmate healthcare products to hedge municipalities against the enormous cost associated with the extended hospitalization of inmates which in single case of a coma can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars and drain the entire inmate healthcare budget. Many private healthcare management companies have answered the call and more and more correctional agencies are farming out their inmate healthcare and mental health functions to private providers like Naph Care, Quality Correctional Healthcare Company among others.  However, some of these companies, most famously Prison Healthcare Services, have come under fire as well as state and New York Times investigations regarding inmate deaths.

Then there are the support services. Every prison needs items that are unique to them. From inmate jumpsuits to special security conscious toothbrushes and commissary items vendors make and sell items specifically for the prison industry. With an estimated 1.6 million people incarcerated in the United States today these vendors are flourishing as a result of providing products and services to support the nations growing prison population.

There have been regional attempts to slow the rate of incapacitation while drugs courts and other specialized programs show some positive outcomes but these attempts are fragmented. The reason mass incarceration problem may never be truly addressed is because it is unpopular for any politician to stand on a platform to announce they are “soft” on crime so the cycle may never truly be addressed systemically.

Pete Curcio is corrections consultant who trains senior corrections personnel and executives throughout the United States. He is a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY. Pete is a former Regional Director from the New York City Department of Correction and Executive Fellow at the DOJ/FBI. He presently provides subject matter expertise for Federal Prison Consultants, Inc. and serves as Law Enforcement today’s correctional expert.

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