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Will new prison plans get reform on line?

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The get-tough-on-crime and lock-up-more-offenders philosophy that is pervading much of the criminal-justice philosophy in the United States today is running smack up against these facts: The nation's prisons are already overcrowded -- and outdated and dilapidated corrections facilities are making the situation worse.

The majority of those being incarcerated are untrained for jobs, undereducated, often illiterate, and generally ill-prepared to deal with society.

Rehabilitation programs on the ``inside'' are rare. And meaningful work for prisoners is hampered by state laws that severely restrict selling goods produced by inmate laborers on the open market.

How do you deal with such prison problems? Simple, some say: Build more prisons and create more work programs for prisoners.

Unfortunately it's not so simple! It is expensive to build prisons. Lawmakers who decry overcrowding also tend to drag their feet in making appropriations for this purpose. And the public is also reluctant to ante up the money through tax increases or bond issues. Who wants more convicts in the neighborhood -- and also to have to pay the freight?

Enter private prison operators who are not only willing to build new prisons under public contracts but are also eager to run them. Private prisons may ease an overpopulation problem that has grown immense. The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out state and federal inmate population has gone up a whopping 40.6 percent since 1980.

Municipalities are already contracting with private companies to build correctional facilities and lease them back to the government. And the American Correctional Association reports that about two dozen prison facilities now are owned by private groups. The association predicts that this number will double in the next year or so.

Privately owned prisons are promoted by their backers as cost effective, efficiently run, and more flexible in operation than their public counterparts. But they also have their detractors, who question the whole idea of whether for-profit incarceration is compatible with the impartial administration of justice. Among critics, some civil rights groups see prisoners' constitutional rights to the due process of law -- already under fire in the courts -- as more difficult to protect in a private facility.

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