Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Longer Sentences, New Prisons Expected to Strain State Budgets

In some states, innovative private firms run experimental prisons and reduce costs

IN southwest Virginia, residents made videos to promote the economically depressed area as the best location for a new state prison. The state agreed, and three more prisons may be on the way.

And in rural Potosi, Mo., zealous residents rode buses several times to the state legislature to lobby for a new prison in the county. Today the prison sits in a Potosi industrial park.

About these ads

Prisons are sprouting prolifically all over the US. Depressed areas want the jobs that prisons bring, and a fearful public demands that more and more criminals be put away with longer sentences.

With $9.8 billion for new prison construction locked in President Clinton's crime bill, the boom in prisons will continue for many years to come. Last year, an average of 1,215 new bed spaces were required each week for sentenced state and federal prisoners.

But as politicians and the public applaud the building of more and more prisons, crime analysts and sociologists are concerned with two questions: What should be done with the increased numbers of men and women while they are in prison, and will states be able to provide billions of dollars to support hundreds of new prisons well into the next century?

``Virginia alone plans 27 new prisons over the next 10 years,'' says Bob Feild, head of the Committee on Architecture for Justice of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

``And the Virginia Department of Corrections says those prisons will be overcrowded after they are built,'' he says. ``The crime bill does call for a task force to see what works and what doesn't in prisons in order to use the funds more effectively.''

Prisons bring enormous costs, many of them hidden, such as health costs. Texas, for instance, has 48 various prison facilities under construction now, all to be completed by the end of 1995. In addition to the construction costs, each new inmate will cost the state between $16,000 and $20,000 a year to incarcerate.

Many states borrow millions to finance prisons through bonds, and interest rates can more than double the original cost. Florida will add enough prisons by 1996 to house 31,000 more inmates. If inmates with ``three strikes'' stay in prison for 20 or more years, or for life, the fiscal consequences could become a major part of state budgets. The older the inmate, the greater his or her health costs, for one thing.

About these ads

As states try to hold down increasing prison costs, many are turning to private companies to design, build, and operate prisons. Thirteen states now have gone the privatization route for some prisons by contracting with private companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Nashville, Tenn., or the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation in Coral Gables, Fla.

``Business is booming,'' says Pat Cannan, a spokesman for Wackenhut. ``We operate or have contracts with 19 prison facilities. There are enough states and agencies looking into privatization now so we can sort of pick and choose between the requests.''

Private companies do cut costs, as much as 15 percent according to some estimates. They are more efficient with personnel, can operate outside ponderous bureaucracies, can eliminate the need for a bond issue, and cut costs through mass purchasing.

Most importantly, private companies can offer innovative prison architecture that is compatible with rehabilitation programs, if that is what a state wants. No more monolithic cell blocks with guards separated from inmates.

``We use what is known as direct interactive supervision,'' says Wayne Calabrese, executive vice president of Wackenhut. ``There is an officer on the floor for each 50-man unit, and there is a backup officer in a control booth who can see 150 inmates by turning in his chair.''

Each unit has a manager in addition to the officer on the floor in the ``day room.'' Other members in the unit might be a counselor, a case manager, sometimes a psychologist or a nurse. Inmates are fed in their unit, but taken to a gym for recreation.

``For programs like substance abuse, life-skills counseling, or vocational counseling,'' says Mr. Calabrese, ``they are held in the day room or nearby classes so the inmates' mobility can be restricted as much as possible. We design programs to try to rehabilitate people.''

In this progressive atmosphere, do lower recidivism rates follow?

``Results are anecdotal now,'' says Calabrese. ``We say our emphasis on rehabilitation can only have a positive effect on recidivism, and on the operations of a center where people are well-managed and actively engaged.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.