The nature and meaning of incarceration in the United States have changed in a variety of profound ways with far-reaching implications. Among these is the institutionalization of a societal commitment to the use and expansion of a massive prison system. Nearly two thirds of prisons today have been built in the past 20 years. These prisons are expected to hold offenders for at least the next 50 years, guaranteeing a national commitment to a high rate of incarceration.
In 21st-century America, imprisonment has become a $60+ billion per year industry, and will continue to increase in scope in the coming decades. The “prison industrial complex” includes not only those agencies directly involved in delivering punishment (courts, corrections, parole and probation agencies, etc), but also a widening array of vested interests that depend for their political and economic well-being on an ever-increasing supply of inmates. This new constellation of interests includes financial institutions that bankroll and finance construction and management of correctional institutions; political action committees that lobby for new prisons; politicians who run on law-and-order platforms that emphasize punishment for criminal offenders; local development authorities that compete for prisons, believing they will be economic development catalysts for their communities; the many for-profit firms engaged in prison privatization; architectural and construction firms that specialize in large institutions; and a broad range of service providers that seek to secure long-term contracts to provide telecommunications, transport, correctional technologies, food and beverage, clothing, computers, and personal hygiene products to the 2.4 million inmates that currently reside in American prisons and jails.
Beyond the tremendous recent growth in the number of inmates and facilities associated with imprisonment, several developments unique to this new era of punishment deserve notice. But before they are introduced, it is instructive to provide some information about how the scope of imprisonment has changed in the last 30 years.