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Bulging Prisons

Many Americans may shrug at concerns about their country's burgeoning prison population. Inmates in state and federal lock-ups now total more than 1.7 million, and their numbers are increasing at a rate of 1,177 a week. There are 60 percent more people in prison now than seven years ago. But better behind bars than out on the streets, right?

In many cases, yes. The growing inmate population includes a higher percentage of violent criminals - largely because more such criminals are serving longer sentences, and fewer are paroled. This is one factor contributing to falling crime rates.

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But some serious problems lie behind the prison figures published each year by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prison overcrowding, for example.

California leads the field here, with 157,547 prisoners, twice the number its system is designed to hold. The range for all states is 15-24 percent overcapacity. The federal system has 19 percent more inmates than capacity. The results: stressful living conditions and greater violence among prisoners and toward guards.

The standard response to overcrowding has been more prisons. Many states are casting about for ways to increase cell space. New publicly funded prisons are going up; private corrections companies are now big players, building and staffing their own facilities; and some states are exporting their inmates to other states that have more capacity.

Each option has its controversies. Private prison operators have drawn criticism for lax standards following outbreaks of violence in facilities like the Corrections Corp. of America's Youngstown, Ohio, prison. The shifting of prisoners between states raises questions of inmate safety and cutting people off from families. And the building boom in prisons - though slowing now - continues to pose thorny questions about state priorities. Couldn't some of the billions in state and federal dollars going to prison construction more profitably go to education, job training, and drug rehabilitation - things that might eventually help reduce inmate numbers?

We shouldn't forget that the name given this whole endeavor is "corrections." The "get tough on crime" refrain nearly drowns out reminders that rehabilitation is actually the goal. Prisoners should have opportunities to get some work experience, strengthen basic academic skills, and consult books, counselors, and ministers that might point them toward a better life.

If bulging prisons crowd out these opportunities, the real loser is society.

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