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Modern Criminal Justice - A Growing Prison Population

prisons federal thousand inmates

With more criminal laws and improved policing, prison populations grew as well. Since the states were primarily responsible for criminal justice, most people convicted of crimes during the twentieth century were held in state prisons. In 1910 there were almost 67,000 prisoners in state prisons; in 1940 this figure rose to over 146,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics produced by the U.S. Department of Justice, prison populations began to swell again by 1980 as longer sentences, often mandatory sentences set by state and federal law, were handed out by courts. In 1980 before the government's war on drugs began, there were over 503,000 inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails. By 2002, sixteen years after the war on drugs began, that figure rose to just over two million. New prisons were built to hold the growing population of inmates; in 1998 and 1999 alone 162 new prisons were under construction while another 675 facilities were remodeled. By 2001 daily operating expenses for state prisons reached $38 billion a year.

In an effort to lower prison expenses in the 1980s and 1990s, states began using outside companies to provide prison services. By the early twenty-first century private prisons (those not owned by the state) were operating in about thirty states, primarily in the South and West. Other facilities previously run by state agencies, such as drug treatment centers and halfway houses (residences where individuals can readjust to life after being released from prison), were also being operated by private companies.

In addition to state prisons, a dramatic growth in the number of federal inmates took place as well. In 1915, before Prohibition, there were only three thousand federal prisoners. By 1930, after a decade of Prohibition, there were thirteen thousand prisoners. To cope with the growing number of federal prisoners, Congress created the Bureau of Federal Prisons in 1930 and the bureau quickly added facilities, including Alcatraz in San Francisco, a prison that later became notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners and reputation of being inescapable. Alcatraz began operation in 1934.

The number of prisoners continued to increase, climbing to twenty thousand in 1940 and twenty-five thousand in 1980 just before President Ronald Reagan's (1911–; served 1981–89) war on drugs that added thousands more. By 1985 the figure rose to almost forty thousand. Over fifty thousand were housed in almost fifty federal facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons by the end of the 1980s.

The U.S. prison population still remained high at the beginning of the twenty-first century. By 2000 two million inmates filled the nation's prisons and jails. Two-thirds were in state and federal prisons; the rest were in local city and county jails. Half of state inmates were convicted of violent crimes while the other half for property, drug, and other crimes. The majority of inmates were minorities, uneducated, and poor. Of industrial nations, the United States was second only to Russia in the percentage of its citizens held in prisons. Even though fewer crimes were being committed, those convicted were facing longer sentences under the harsher sentencing laws.

A women's workshop in Sing Sing Prison, New York, 1877. (© Corbis)

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