The United States prison population peaked in 2009 with more than two million incarcerated people in state and federal prisons. The nation’s prison population began its world leader growth in 1972 with President Richard Nixon’s “war on crime.” It continued to increase through every presidential administration, ending with President George W. Bush in 2008. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the prison population stood at 380,000 and nearly doubled by the end of his term in 1988 to 627,000.


In Texas alone, between 1978 and 2003, the incarceration rate quadrupled from 182 people for every 100,000 to 710 people for every 100,000. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill gave states like Texas enormous funding to increase what had become known as the nation’s “prison industrial complex.” 


But since 2009, a “decarceration movement” has effectively cut into the prisoner populations in state and federal prisons—the human fuel that feeds the prison industrial complex. Three states—New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey—have cut their prison populations by 50 percent, while another 25 states have cut their prisoner populations by 25 percent. 


Texas did not make this elite group, but the state has managed, despite repeated false cries about a “rising crime rate” in political campaigns, to reduce its prisoner population by 20 percent in that 14-year time frame.


Although sometimes mischaracterized as a move from punishment to rehabilitation, the Texas prison population reductions can actually be attributed to “staffing [and other financial] issues.” The Texas Department of Criminal Justice simply cannot maintain the staff needed to support its massive prison industry created between 1978 and 2000.


In a recent 2023 report, Arnold Ventures—a Houston headquartered philanthropic bipartisan group committed to fixing “broken systems,” including health care, democracy, and criminal justice—laid out the Texas prison population dilemma this way:


“In Texas, Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is struggling with many of these [staffing] problems. The department has long had an issue with correctional officer vacancies, he says, but today a staggering 6,400 of its 24,000 total positions are unfilled. Collier attributes the shortage, in part, to the rigors of the job, especially as people return to the job market in a post-COVID-19 market.


“’Corrections has never been an easy profession, and the stress of the environment really takes a toll,’ he says. ‘If you’re looking at your options to go back into the workforce, and if salaries and benefits are comparable, why would go into corrections when you could do something less stressful?’


“Despite leadership approving a pay hike of 15% across all staff in the system, the department has struggled to retain employees.”


Under its latest pay increase, the beginning annual salary for a TDCJ correctional officer is $44,674. The median annual income in Texas for one earner is $55,441 and $74,636 for two earners. Given this reality, it is obvious the Texas Legislature is not committed to adequate staff funding for the state’s TDCJ employees.


That means decarceration is the only realistic way Texas can dismantle its sprawling prison industrial complex—a system of 104 state prisons, 38 of which were built in one five-year period, that cost the state more than $3 billion annually to maintain. 


That realization became apparent to the Texas Legislature in 2007


In what was called the Whitmire/Madden Correctional Treatment and Diversion Plan, the legislature elected to decarcerate through judicial diversionary programs. This plan included:


  • Reduced sentencing verdicts for nonviolent offenders;
  • Mandated probation and drug rehabilitation as alternatives to incarceration for first-time, low-risk, nonviolent offenders;
  • Gave more discretion to judges in sentencing nonviolent offenders to treatment programs, parole, and probation;
  • Reduced probation sentences for eligible, successful probationers; and
  • Expanded drug and specialty courts.


The Nolan Center for Justice reports that:


“Since enacting [these] reforms a decade ago, Texas has saved over $2 billion by reducing the size of its prison populations. Crime rate dropped by 29 percent, giving Texas the lowest rate in its history since 1968. Texas also announced in 2017 it intended to close four more prisons to save an additional $49.5 million in operating costs and administrative fees. And in 2020, the population of incarcerated Texans decreased enough to warrant closing two more prison facilities, saving the state roughly $20 million. In the last decade, Texas has closed ten of its prisons, largely a result of effective prison reform.”


Still, Texas leads the nation with 133,772 prisoners, far eclipsing its two nearest rivals, California and Florida.


What decarceration proves, especially in Texas, is that the “rising crime rates” that created and fueled the prison industrial complex was a lie. It is true that crime rates in America began a steady uptick from 1965 until the 1990s when the rates began to decline. 


That 1965 uptick led to the creation of the prison industrial complex in January 1973. 


Over the next two decades, the increasing numbers of prisons were packed with tens of thousands of people, disproportionately black, who were manufactured into repeat offenders. Those repeat offenders contributed significantly to the peak crime rates in the 1990s.


But for the past three decades, the crime rates have declined—in Texas to the lowest point since 1968, according to the Nolan Center for Justice. Texas had a population of nearly 11 million people in 1968. The state surpassed 30 million people in 2022. So, with three times as many people and a crime rate as low as it was in 1968, why have “law-and-order” political campaigns premised on rising crime rates have been so prevalent in the state for the past two decades?


The answer is multifaceted, from politics to profits. Fear-mongering politics and racial dog whistles keep voters ginned up for right-wing law and order candidates. Campaign contributions from voracious stakeholders who benefit from building, maintaining, and supplying the prison industrial complex are paid to candidates who support their financial bottom line. And finally, there is a cynical need to keep human bodies in all those prison beds constructed by the state and private prison companies.  


It is ironic that, in the end, it is only when it becomes too expensive to afford to pay to cage human beings that decarceration may become a reality. Cost, not humanity, is the engine that may finally drive the decarceration movement. The prison industrial complex has just become too costly to maintain.