In 2000, when Glenn Martin was leaving prison in upstate Attica, N.Y., after serving six years for robbery, the correctional officer thanked him in a way he'd never forget: "He said my being there helped pay for his boat, and that when my son came there, he would help pay for his son's boat."
As cruel and obnoxious as the comment was, it was a reasonable expectation. Of the 6,000 residents of Attica, nearly two-thirds are prisoners, most from troubled neighborhoods in Martin's hometown of New York City, about an eight-hour drive south. Like so many other states over the past three decades, as the nation's prison population has exploded from 307,000 to 1.6 million, New York has come to see incarceration as a major source of employment. The corrections department is the state's largest agency, employing more than 31,000 people at 70 institutions; at $40,000 per inmate, the state spends $2.5 billion a year. (See pictures of crime in Middle America. (external - login to view))
It was, many observers agree, never the best use of taxpayer money. And now, with so many states facing major budget crises, it looks like it won't continue at the same pace much longer. California's prisons are so overcrowded and underfunded that a federal judge recently ruled that the state must release roughly a third of its 158,000 prisoners by 2012. The New York State legislature is close to scrapping the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that, by imposing mandatory sentences rather than rehab treatment, have kept many otherwise law-abiding drug users in prison for years. Other states, such as Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina, are either releasing some prisoners who have served their minimum time or putting drug offenders in treatment programs instead of prison.