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GAO Reports Available: Federal and State Prisons

Federal and State Prisons: "Inmate Populations, Costs and Projection Models," November 1996, GAO/GGD-97-15

Private and Public Prisons: "Studies Comparing Operational Costs and/or Quality of Service," August 1996, GAO/GGD-96-158

Reflecting both the relatively recent "get tough on crime" and the age-old theme of corporate profit there are two new GAO reports, one written as if in response to questions raised by the other. Approximately 1.1 million people were incarcerated in 1995. Assuming the sentencing policies in effect in 1994, there will be 1.4 million in prisons by the year 2000. This estimate is based on the average annual increase of 8.5 percent experienced between 1980 and 1995, the period covered by the report on federal and state prisons. If all states opted to use truth-in-sentencing laws which require prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences however, the number of prisoners could reach 1.6 million. Other estimates predict as many as 2 million by 2002.

All of this comes at a not inconsiderable cost to the taxpayer. In 1980, $3.1 billion was spent on prisons. In 1994 that sum had increased to $17.7 billion. By the year 2000, prisons could drain $25.5 billion in operating costs alone. This reflects the 9.5 percent average cost increase each year between 1980 and 1994. Capital costs have increased from approximately half a billion dollars to $2.3 billion over the same period.

When the Cold War ended, taxpayer dollars that had funded military contractors became available to the war on crime. Money was soon funneled into the building of prisons and jails and finding its way into the hands of private contractors. To date no federal prisoners are in privately owned and/or run institutions however; after proposing the privatization of most future pretrial detention and minimum- and low-security facilities, the Department of Justice noted that it could not "reduce the risk of a strike or a walk out" by prison guards and withdrew its proposals. Some states are willing though to undertake the risk. In 1996, 33,396 prisoners were in 47 privately owned state institutions in 12 states. The report on public and private prisons evaluates 5 studies completed since 1991 in 6 of these states: Texas, California, Tennessee, New Mexico, Louisiana and Washington analyzing each as to cost and "quality of service." The report concludes that the studies "offer little generalizable guidance about what to expect regarding ... costs and quality of service [from] privatizing correctional facilities."

To obtain copies of these reports write to: U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Maryland 20884-6015. First copies are free. Additional copies are $2 each. Checks or money orders should be made out to: Superintendent of Documents, and sent to the address above.

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