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Corrections - Incarceration

private security hold prisons

Persons sentenced to jail or prison are imprisoned within the U.S. penal system. Jails are generally operated locally by counties or cities; they confine offenders convicted of misdemeanors (minor crimes) whose sentences are for less than one year. They also hold persons awaiting court proceedings such as a trial. There are approximately three thousand jails in the United States, some confine only a small number of prisoners while others hold thousands. Prisons are operated by federal and state authorities plus a few private corporations. They hold offenders convicted of felonies (major crimes) whose sentences are more than one year.

State and federal prisons—called minimum, medium, or maximum-security prisons—vary in their characteristics. Minimum-security prison camps may have no walls or fences and hold only nonviolent offenders who do not pose much of an escape risk. In maximum security facilities, prisoners spend up to twenty-three hours of each day in their individual cells, are heavily guarded, and are considered "escape proof." These prisons hold America's most dangerous and violent criminals.

Beginning in the mid-1980s private corporations provided a new source of prisons. Federal and state governments signed contracts with these private companies to house offenders, usually for minimum and medium security facilities, but not maximum-security prisons. The two best-known private correction companies that run over half of the private facilities are Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America. At the beginning of the twenty-first century private companies accounted for approximately 5 percent of the prison population.


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