Steffanie Rivers

*The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, proving that the prison industrial complex has been profitable. Despite the annual $3 billion private prison industry, some state and local governments that risked everything in hopes that for-profit prisons were the key to their long-term financial success have realized they should have diversified.

Sure, the private prison industry is so huge that it has had a quarterly magazine for nearly fifteen years. But just as with any hot stock pick municipalities that got in thirty years ago, before the U.S. prison population started to explode, have realized the biggest profits.

Those who were late to the game, just like in the real estate boom, are left with overpriced products, in this case empty prisons. Almost forty states run for-profit prisons. Texas has the most and therefore has been hardest hit by the inmate recession.

Local governments in Texas had invested more in crime and punishment than in any other state in the country. Now many of those million-dollar, state-of-the-art prisons are sitting empty or under populated for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the number of offenders being sentenced to prison has fallen off. So local governments with contracts to house inmates from other counties and states are not bringing in the big bucks the way they used to. Also, some non-violent criminals are subject to house arrest or other forms of punishment cutting back on incarcerations. And that reduces the cost to feed, clothe and house prisoners. But munipalities that took out loans to build the prisons still have to pay the five-figure monthly note even if they are empty.

And if there are no prisoners there’s no cheap labor to service contracts. Companies that include Dell Computers, Texas Instruments, Boeing and even Target have used prison labor to produce their wares. Most U.S. military equipment from pants to helmets and ammunition are produced by inmates. It keeps companies from having to pay employee wages, healthcare or sick pay.

While using inmates as cheap labor is resourceful, it makes me question the fairness or intent of a justice system that profits so much on people who get locked up. And with so much effort put into crime and punishment with no payoff other essentials, such as public education, have gone neglected. Now more than $8 billion in education funds are being cut from the Texas state budget.

If legislators aren’t careful the children they neglect today will become the inmates they are searching for tomorrow.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at youtube.com/steffanierivers.