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  • Profit and Stealth in the Prison-Industrial Complex
  • Alexander H. Pitofsky
Review of: Joseph T. Hallinan, Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. New York: Random House, 2002.

In this cogent, wide-ranging study, Joseph Hallinan examines the ways in which the American penal system has been transformed during the last twenty years. Working-class Americans who used to protest when state officials announced plans to build prisons in their communities now compete to attract new penitentiaries and the jobs they create. The incarceration of convicts—once perceived as a grim governmental responsibility—has become a thriving, recession-proof industry. Prison officials have shifted their priorities from inmate rehabilitation programs to budgetary concerns; instead of focusing on the prevention of recidivism, they focus on the reduction of “average daily inmate costs.” Perhaps the most startling feature of these institutional changes, Hallinan observes, is the fact that they have been implemented without substantive public debate. Although incarceration rates have reached levels that would have seemed inconceivable as recently as the early 1980s, the public seems virtually unaware of the ways in which the aims and methodologies of the nation’s penal system have been revised. Going Up the River will disappoint readers in search of a polemic against what Hallinan calls “the prison-industrial complex,” but it provides an ideal starting place for readers who want to understand how the confluence of economics and punishment has reshaped the prison culture of the United States.

Throughout Going Up the River, Hallinan (a Wall Street Journal reporter and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University) emphasizes that the most significant recent change in America’s approach to criminal justice is an increase in the size of its prison population. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, “three strikes” statutes, and a panoply of other “get tough on crime” initiatives, Hallinan writes, have increased the nation’s total number of prisoners to an estimated 1.3 million. (This is a conservative estimate; other recent commentators have posited that the total is nearly two million.) Accordingly, even though crime rates have fallen in the last five years, the per capita incarceration rate in the United States is now second only to that in Russia. This increased reliance on imprisonment has no precedent in the history of the American criminal justice system. In the 1930s, at the height of the Prohibition/Al Capone era, the government cracked down by raising the national incarceration rate to 137 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens. This figure was considered extraordinarily high at the time, but recent developments make it seem moderate:

[The 137 for every 100,000 citizens figure was] a high-water mark that stood for four decades. But in 1980 we broke that record, and we’ve been breaking it ever since. By 1999, the U.S. incarceration rate stood at a phenomenal 476 per 100,000—more than triple the rate of the Capone era. So common is the prison experience today that the federal government predicts that one of every eleven men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. For black men, the figure is even higher—more than one of every four.


This rapid increase in the nation’s incarceration rate has, of course, necessitated the constant construction of new penal facilities; Texas alone has filled more than one hundred new prisons since 1980. Several states that have been unable to match Texas’s prison-construction budget have hired the Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, and other private prison firms to incarcerate convicts that the states’ prisons are unable to hold. In 1983, there were no private prisons in the United States; today, Hallinan observes, the demand for private prison services is so high that states can choose from among 150 firms.

The business community has worked aggressively to capitalize on the expansion of the nation’s prison population. Telephone companies have found rising rates of incarceration especially lucrative. Although prisoners do not earn much income, they make a staggering number of phone calls. Hallinan notes that a single prison pay phone can earn its owner as much as $12,000 per year. According to a study commissioned by AT&T, American...

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