War on Drugs fueling Expansion of America's Prison Industry

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    Prison Building Binge Skews Census Figures, Shifts Benefits and Political Power, Study Says


    So many prisons have been built in rural areas in recent years and so many prisoners housed in them that the impact is showing up in census figures -- and in local, state, and federal aid allocations based on those census figures. According to a study released April 29 by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research group, prisoners make up as much as 30% of the population of some rural counties. Because the US Census Bureau counts prisoners where they are being held, not where they live, the binge in prison construction since the 1980s is skewing financial assistance and political power toward rural counties, the study's authors said.

    The numbers are dramatic. According to the report, "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion," the number of state and federal prisons has jumped from 592 in 1974 to 1,023 in 2000. The report focuses, however, on the 10 states that led the way in prison building between 1980 and 2000. Those states are California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Texas.

    During that period, the number of state and federal prisoners increased nearly eight-fold, from 316,000 to 1.3 million, with the war on drugs being a significant driving force. People doing time on drug charges typically account for 20-30% of state prison populations and nearly 70% of federal prisoners.

    The "Big Ten" states responded with an unprecedented prison construction frenzy, with Texas alone accounting for 120 new prisons (compared to 17 total in 1980), while Florida has been second-busiest, building 84 new prisons, and California came in a close third with 83. New York placed fourth with 65 new prisons since 1980.

    But it is the location as well as the sheer numbers of prisons and prisoners that is having an impact. In 1980, only 13% of US counties hosted prisons; now 31% do. In Florida, 78% of all counties have prisons; in California, 59%; in New York, 52%. And in rural counties, where legislators have viewed the prison boom as a jobs and economic development program, prisoners now account for significant portions of the population.

    In 114 of the 1,052 counties included in the study, inmates counted for at least 5% of the county's population. Two counties -- one in Florida and one in Texas -- had populations that were composed of more than 30 percent prison inmates. Thirteen counties in the 10 states, including eight counties in Texas, had 20 to 29% of the resident population imprisoned in 2000. Each state had at least five counties in which 5 to 9% of the population was imprisoned and at least one county at the 10 to 19 percent level.

    The most populous county with more than 10 percent of its residents incarcerated was Kings County, California, where 13 percent of its approximately 130,000 residents were in prison in 2000. The county with the largest share of its residents in prison was Concho County in Texas: With just under 4,000 people in 2000, it had 33 percent of its inhabitants in prison.

    "Prisons built in communities far away from prisoners' homes make visitation more difficult," said report co-authors Jeremy Travis and Sara Lawrence. "But the locations of prisons can affect the distribution of political power, the allocation of governmental resources, and the economies of the communities in which the new institutions are built and those from which the prisoners are drawn. Every dollar transferred to a 'prison community' is a dollar that is not given to the home community of a prisoner, which is often among the country's most disadvantaged urban areas," they said.

    "This study shows that the prison network is now deeply intertwined with American life, deeply integrated into the physical and economic infrastructure of a large number of American counties," added Travis. "This network has become a separate reality, apart from the criminal justice system," he said. "It provides jobs for construction workers and guards, and because the inmates are counted as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated, it means more federal and state funding and greater political representation for these counties."
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