Billions Behind Bars: Colorado's prison industry gets its closeup in CNBC special (VIDEO)

A few years back, reporting on a convention of prison officials and vendors who supplied them with everything from stab-proof vests to suicide-proof toilets, I noted that America's spending on the corrections industry had reached $40 billion a year. According to two new documentaries worth checking out, that figure has almost doubled in the past decade.

The CNBC special Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prison Industry, which premiered last night and airs again on Friday, estimates that annual state and federal spending on locking people up is now at $74 billion -- an indication of the industry's resilience, even in an era of declining crime rates and economic collapse. Colorado's prison population has flattened out in recent years, but state, private and federal hoosegows continue to be a significant source of jobs and revenue in several counties.

CNBC's Scott Cohn drops in on our state, mainly to examine the use of convict labor in Colorado Correctional Industries, the state operation that puts prisoners to work breaking mustangs, making furniture, raising tilapia, and other ventures. The producers claim that CCI generates $56 million in annual revenues, but that's a bit misleading, since some of the transactions involve other state agencies making required purchases of furniture and other goods from CCI at inflated prices; check out this robust rant on how a $50 desk ends up costing taxpayers $1,400.

Another, somewhat edgier exploration of for-profit lockups aired last night on PBS courtesy of Frontline and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. In "Lost in Detention," correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes a look at the booming private system for immigration detainees and the abuses of human rights to be found there -- a growing scandal beneath the Obama administration's crackdown on illegal immigration. Portions of that show can be found online here.

For a glimpse of CNBC's tour of Colorado Correctional Industries, check out the clip below.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "MSNBC's prison-reality show and the death of a pedophile."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast