The cost of housing America's soaring prison population has eaten into the budgets of the 50 state governments, who meet much of the cost of prisons and schools.
It has swallowed cash that could have gone to education to cover expensive new computer equipment. All of which lends a strange irony to a scheme now under way in South Dakota.
In just one example of America's growing use of convict labour, minimum-security prisoners from the state's jails have been enlisted to wire South Dakota's schools to the Internet. Governor Bill Janklow has championed the scheme, in his determination to make the state a home to "modem cowboys".
The inmates enlisted, both men and women, are all "trusties" close to release, and are told that doing a good job will improve their chances of parole. They are non-violent offenders, and must pass a test for dexterity and learning ability. They typically live at schools for the six weeks it takes to wire them up, using classrooms as makeshift dormitories, standing out in their bright orange prison garb.
The scheme has one notable attraction in South Dakota, where more than half of 134,000 public school pupils now have Internet access - its cost. The prisoners work under professional foremen, and are paid just $2 for a 10-hour day, six days a week. School districts foot the bill for food, housing, a guard or two, and materials, but little else. Wiring work that would typically cost about $100,000 for a medium-sized school is usually less than one-tenth of that.