The following is an excerpt Chapter 12, “Incarceration Inc.,” from Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.
In addition to the private prison corporations, a wide range of companies, organizations, individuals, and even towns profit economically or politically from prisons. They all have “skin in the game” – and have a definite interest in opposing attempts to reduce or end mass incarceration.
These prison profiteers recognize that incarcerating people is an economic as well as a political operation. Keeping a person in prison is costly, whether in New York, where in 2010 it cost on average $60,076 a year to lock up one person, or in West Virginia, where the price tag was $26,498. The question is: where does that money come from and where does it go?
It is pretty simple to see where the money comes from. Almost all funding for operating prisons and jails comes from tax revenues. The money to build them, however, usually requires issuing some kind of bond. The repayment of the bond then comes from taxes.
Where the money goes is more complicated. Expanding and sustaining mass imprisonment requires at least three costly activities:
1. Building the infrastructure. Whether in the public or private sector, those who will run the prison must pay architects, engineers, and contractors to design and build the cells, security fences, guard towers, visiting rooms, offices, et cetera.
2. Employing staff. Once the prison is built, the major operating costs for prisons and jails are wages and salaries. These are paid not only to guards but to counselors, case managers, administrators, accountants, maintenance people, cooks, drivers, secretarial staff, doctors, nurses, and a host of other employees. All told, staffing costs generally consume at least half of expenditure on corrections.
3. Supplying goods and services to people in prison. Each prisoner needs food, clothing, water, and medical services. Most prisons also have some kind of recreational equipment, televisions, telephones, and a store where prisoners can buy supplemental food, clothing, and hygiene items.