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A housing boom comes to US prisons

America is standing on the verge of a prison construction boom. One out of every 659 Americans is behind bars - serving sentences of various lengths. The US prison population is growing nearly 15 times faster than that of the nation as a whole.

This situation, brought on not only by increased crime but stiffer sentences, is a growing concern to public officials around the nation. It comes at a time when 42 percent of state and federal prisons are more than a half century old. At least 38 states and the District of Columbia are under court order to relieve inmate overcrowding or otherwise upgrade conditions.

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A few states, including Georgia and Michigan, have resorted at least temporarily to the early release of inmates nearing the end of their terms. Others are turning in part to greater flexibility in parole eligibility.

But the big push almost everywhere is for expanded correctional facilities to meet at least current inmate custodial, if not rehabilitation, needs. Thus, despite what for some states is a Herculean task in finding money for the projects, the clamor for new prison facilities is sweeping the nation.

* Within the past year facilities to house 22,823 convicts in 36 states have been completed.

* Quarters for another 26,538 are under construction in 39 states, at a cost of $865.9 million.

* Housing for an additional 15,652 inmates in 22 states has been authorized with a price tag of $816 million. Construction has yet to begin.

* Proposals for facilities to take care of 26,479 more convicts in 33 states, costing a projected $1.54 billion, currently are pending.

Most of the latter will be considered during 1982 state legislative sessions, according to Larry Linke of the National Clearing House on Corrections. Earlier this fall, the Boulder, Colo.-based agency surveyed all 50 states and found that prison construction, expansion, or modernization projects now in process, authorized, or proposed total $3.22 billion.

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This does not include a $47.32 million corrections building program recently filed and being pushed in Massachusetts by Gov. Edward J. King. The Bay State now has 3,750 inmates - 19 percent above its intended capacity. Under Governor King's proposal, it would gain 2,058 cells over the next three years. King is calling for conversion of portions of two former mental hospitals, additions to two existing minimum security prisons, and building of three county jails.

In Texas, where the inmate population climbed by 900 during September and October, two prisons and temporary quarters to house 2,052 inmates were completed earlier this year. Six more prisons with spaces for nearly 7,000 inmates are under way. And plans are afoot for four additional facilities for about 38,000 convicts.

These projects, financed in part by revenue from state offshore oil leases, will cost an estimated $257 million. Currently the Lone Star State, which ranks seventh in number of prisoners in relation to its population, has 31,433 inmates. This represents an increase of 1,521 since July 1 and 2,459 more than at the end of 1980.

Nationally, the number of inmates in federal and state correctional institutions increased from 328,695 to 349,118 during the first six months of 1981, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice.

This 6.2 percent increase compares with a nationwide growth in population of 0.43 percent over the same period.

Several states exceeded the 6.2 percent prison population growth rate. In California, for example, the number of inmates climbed from 24,568 to 26,792 between Jan. 1 and the end of June - a 9 percent rise. Next June, voters in the Golden State will consider a $495 million prison expansion and improvement program that would add 5,550 cells to the prison system by 1985.

In New York State, where a Nov. 3 proposal for $500 million in bonds for correctional facilities appears to have been narrowly beaten, lawmakers are pondering how to come up with the money for new prisons.

In June 1980, New York Gov. Hugh Carey proposed the state's prison capacity be expanded from 21,132 to 25,600. New York currently has 25,444 persons behind bars. This is 11.1 percent above capacity, but thus far double celling has been avoided, according to state corrections officials.

Last June the US Supreme Court, in litigation brought by two Ohio convicts, ruled that putting two prisoners in the same cell is not of itself a violation of their constitutional rights.

Michigan, one of the states that has continued to shy away from double-celling, last winter enacted a law allowing for the release of certain convicts during the final few months of their incarceration, to eliminate prison overcrowding. Under this arrangement 900 convicts were released between May and August. Currently the state has 12,833 inmates in its various correctional institutions, which have a combined capacity of 13,241.

The extent to which state and local governments build or upgrade their prisons could hinge in large part on passage of the proposed Criminal Justice Construction Reform Act, now pending in Congress

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, appears to be facing rough times. The Reagan administration supports the bill in principle, but winces at its price tag. The bill would commit $6.5 billion in federal funds over the next five years to prison building projects across the US.

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