BY the end of 1988 the total number of convicted criminals U.S.
federal and state prisons reached 628,000, the largest number ever incarcerated and an increase of some 90 percent over an 8-year period. (another 150,000 were awaiting trial in local prisoners.) The prison population expanded by about 7 percent duringl988, a rate of increase that would require the addition of more than 800 beds per week to U.S. degree, the national drug problem contributed to this growth: since 1980 the number of arrests for drug violations increased 80 percent.
As a result of the large numbers of prisoners, overcrowding is common-place in all correctional institutions. Overcrowding can lead to higher levels of tension and aggression, and is a contributory factor in prison riots. There is little doubt that conditions in most prisons are a threat to the safety of inmates and prison staffs alike. Prison guards, usually rural and underqualified, face the open hostility afinmates who are often from urban ghetto environments.
The cost of maintaining prisons is staggering: depending on the type of prison and the state where it is located, an annual $14,OOO-30,OOO per prisoner. The cost of new construction averages almost $54,OO0 per bed (although a maximum-security bed in Massachusetts or West Virginia¬ where prison costs are highest-reaches $140,OOO). In 1989, 43 states were under court order to correct overcrowding in their prisons. A few of these states have turned to private companies, who build and administer new prisons at lower costs than those the states can obtain. Some criminologists4uestion whether it is appropriate for a state to hand over its correction and detention responsibilities to private enterprise.
The most familiar type of correctional institution is the large, fortress like, maximum-security prison. Such structures as San Quentin prison in California are characterised by their massive size, thick stone walls, gun towers, steel doors, multi -tiered cell blocks, large populations, and rural locations. By contrast, medium-and minimum-security institutions are identified by their openness and the absence of strict security procedures. Persons held in such facilities are judged to be less dangerous and therefore better security risks. A myriad of correctional programs and wide range of counselling pro-grams are offered in many prisons, their extent is limited by their cost, the size of the prison population, and the expertise of the staff.
Prison work programs have existed since colonial times, although often under rigid restrictions intended to limit their competing with outside industry. Recent attempts to bring outside work into the prison have demonstrated the productive potential of prison labor, however.
Under one such program, businesses are offered some type of financial inducement to enter the prison. Inmates are paid the market wage for their labor, and deductions are made for room and board, family support, union dues, taxes, restitution, and savings. Nevertheless, in 1988 only some 50,000 inmates were assigned to prison industry programs. Medical care is another urgent inmate need, especially with the growing presence of AIDS in the prison population. Many prisoners have exceedingly poor medical histories; they may suffer from the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, the population of medically-vulnerable elderly prisoners will increase as inmates serve longer sentences. Despite the need, regular medical services are costly to provide and difficult to maintain. Many institutions have attempted to provide care by contracting for medical services rather than maintaining full-time facilities.
Despite the presence of prison rehabilitation services, one point must be emphasised: prisons have never been schools, factories, hospitals, or psychiatric centers. First and foremost, they are places of confinement. The ever increasing size of the U.S. prison population insures that, in future, most prisons will serve primarily as holding facilities.