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Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prison Industry

About the Show

With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars — while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.

From some of the poorest towns in America to some of the wealthiest investment firms on Wall Street, CNBC’s Scott Cohn travels the country to go inside the big and controversial business of prisons. We go inside private prisons and examine an Idaho facility nicknamed the “gladiator school” by inmates and former prison employees for its level of violence. We look at one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry, immigration detention, and tell the story of what happens when a hard hit town in Montana accepts an enticing sales pitch from private prison developers. In Colorado, we profile a little-known but profitable workforce behind bars, and discover that products created by prison labor have seeped into our everyday lives — even some of the food we eat. We also meet a tough-talking judge in the law-and-order state of Texas who’s actually trying to keep felons out of prison and save taxpayer money, through an innovative and apparently successful program.

Web Extras

  • Two Rivers Detention Facility Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:07 AM ET
    Two Rivers Detention Facility

    Hard times in Hardin, Montana, where the Two Rivers Detention Facility, completed in 2007, has never housed a single prisoner. CNBC's Scott Cohn takes you on a tour of the empty Two Rivers prison.

  • Prisons & Profits Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:04 AM ET
    Prisons & Profits

    There are architects, health care and technology companies all after their piece of the billions behind bars. CNBC's Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prison Industry goes behind the razor wire to investigate the profits and inner-workings of the multi-billion dollar corrections industry.

  • Prison Growth Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:03 AM ET
    Prison Growth

    In many depressed areas, new prison complexes have revitalized the local economy. America's prison system employs more than three-quarters-of-a-million workers -- more than the auto industry. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics shows there are 26 new jobs created for every 100 inmates. Many small towns are trying to get in on the boom.

  • Gladiator School Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:05 AM ET
    Gladiator School

    Scott Cohn reports on a prison fight in the privately run Idaho Correctional Center. The ICC was so violent, the employees and inmates began calling it the "gladiator school." (Video Courtesy: Associated Press)

  • Prison Labor -- Colorado's Canon City Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:05 AM ET
    Prison Labor -- Colorado's Canon City

    In the high desert of southern Colorado there's an oasis of American industry staffed by prison workers. There's a goat farm, vineyard, florist and a tilapia fish farm. The state's correction department is on a mission to save taxpayers money while rehabilitating prisoners.

  • Texas Prison Reform Friday, 7 Oct 2011 | 6:06 AM ET
    Texas Prison Reform

    It's a courtroom like none you've ever seen. The Community Corrections Continuum of Care Court is a centerpiece of prison reform in Texas. Judge Robert Francis' unique approach saves money by keeping people out of jail.

  • For-Profit Prisons: A Barrier to Serious Criminal Justice Reform
    By: David Shapiro |Staff Attorney, ACLU National Prison Project
    Wednesday, 12 Oct 2011 | 2:26 PM ET
    Inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard December in Chino, Calif.

    The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one — especially at a time when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises caused largely by bloated and unnecessary prison spending.

  • Embrace Competition to Lower Costs, Improve Performance in Prisons
    By: Leonard Gilroy|Director, Government Reform, Reason Foundation
    Wednesday, 12 Oct 2011 | 2:26 PM ET

    Sensible criminal justice reforms like easing drug penalties, using drug courts, expanding treatment programs and sentencing reforms are key changes. Lawmakers are also expanding their use of public-private partnerships to lower prison spending, improve performance and avoid major capital investment in new prisons.

  • Famous Prisoners: Where Are They Now?
    By: CNBC.com
    Friday, 14 Oct 2011 | 2:39 PM ET
    Prison: Mid-State Correctional Faiclity, New YorkThe former Tyco CEO was convicted on June 17, 2005 for receiving $81 million in purportedly unauthorized bonuses, the purchase of more than $14 million in art and the payment by TYCO of a $20 million investment banking fee to Frank Walsh, a former Tyco director.Kozlowski was sentenced on Sept. 19, 2005, to serve up to 25 years in prison for his role in the scandal.In September, Tyco announced plans to split into three publicly traded companies, po

    Plenty of well-known people have wound up in the slammer. Here's a look at where some high-profile prisoners have spent their time behind bars.

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