The Prison-Industrial Complex

Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. The nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers
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While many families in the north await the return of sons and daughters slowly earning seniority downstate, families in New York City must endure the absence of loved ones who seem to have been not just imprisoned for their crimes but exiled as well. Every Friday night about 800 people, mostly women and children, almost all of them African-American or Latino, gather at Columbus Circle, in Manhattan, and board buses for the north. The buses leave through the night and arrive in time for visiting hours on Saturday. Operation Prison Gap, which runs the service, was founded by an ex-convict named Ray Simmons who had been imprisoned upstate and knew how hard it was for the families of inmates to arrange visits. When the company started, in 1973, it carried passengers in a single van. Now it charters thirty-five buses and vans on a typical weekend and a larger number on special occasions, such as Father's Day and Thanksgiving. Ray Simmons's brother Tyrone, who heads the company, says that despite the rising inmate population, ridership has fallen a bit over the past few years. The inconvenience and expense of the long bus trips take their toll. One customer, however, has for fifteen years faithfully visited her son in Comstock every weekend. In 1996 she stopped appearing at Columbus Circle; her son had been released. Six months later he was convicted of another violent crime and sent back to the same prison. The woman, now in her seventies, still boards the 2:00 A.M. bus for Comstock every weekend. Simmons gives her a discount, charging her $15—the same price she paid on her first trip, in 1983.

The Bare Hill Correctional Facility sits near the town of Malone, fifteen miles south of the Canadian border. The Franklin Correctional Facility is a quarter of a mile down the road, and the future site of a new maximum-security prison is next door. Bare Hill is one of the "cookie cutter" medium-security prisons that were built during the Cuomo administration. The state has built fourteen other prisons exactly like it—a form of penal mass production that saves a good deal of money. Most of the inmates at Bare Hill are housed in dormitories, not cells. The dormitories were designed to hold about fifty inmates, each with his own small cubicle and bunk. In 1990, two years after the prison opened, double-bunking was introduced as a "temporary" measure to ease the overcrowding in county jails, which were holding an overflow of state inmates. Eight years later every dormitory at Bare Hill houses sixty inmates, a third of them double-bunked. About 90 percent of the inmates come from New York City or one of its suburbs, eight hours away; about 80 percent are African-American or Latino. The low walls of the cubicles, which allow little privacy, are covered with family photographs, pinups, religious postcards. Twenty-four hours a day a correctional officer sits alone at a desk on a platform that overlooks the dorm.

The superintendent of Bare Hill, Peter J. Lacy, is genial and gray-haired, tall and dignified in his striped tie, flannels, and blue blazer. His office feels light and cheery. Lacy began his career, in 1955, as a correctional officer at Dannemora; he wore a uniform for twenty-five years, and in the 1980s headed a special unit that handled prison emergencies and riots. He later served as an assistant commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections. One of his sons is now a lieutenant at a downstate prison. As Superintendent Lacy walks through the prison grounds, he seems like a captain surveying his ship, rightly proud of its upkeep, familiar with every detail. The lawns are neatly trimmed, the buildings are well maintained, and the red-brick dorms would not seem out of place on a college campus, except for the bars in the windows. There is nothing oppressive about the physical appearance of Bare Hill, about the ball fields with pine trees in the background, about the brightly colored murals and rustic stencils on the walls, about the classrooms where instructors teach inmates how to read, how to write, how to draw a blueprint, how to lay bricks, how to obtain a Social Security card, how to deal with their anger. For many inmates Bare Hill is the neatest, cleanest, most well-ordered place they will ever live. As Lacy passes a group of inmates leaving their dorms for class, the inmates nod their heads in acknowledgment, and a few of them say, "Hello, sir." And every so often a young inmate gives Lacy a look filled with a hatred so pure and so palpable that it would burn Bare Hill to the ground, if only it could.

Big Business

The black-and-white photograph shows an inmate leaning out of a prison cell, scowling at the camera, his face partially hidden in the shadows. "HOW HE GOT IN IS YOUR BUSINESS," the ad copy begins. "HOW HE GETS OUT IS OURS." The photo is on the cover of a glossy brochure promoting AT&T's prison telephone service, which is called The Authority. BellSouth has a similar service, called MAX, advertised with a photo of a heavy steel chain dangling from a telephone receiver in place of a cord. The ad promises "long distance service that lets inmates go only so far." Although the phone companies rely on clever copy in their ads, providing telephone service to prisons and jails has become a serious, highly profitable business. The nearly two million inmates in the United States are ideal customers: phone calls are one of their few links to the outside world; most of their calls must be made collect; and they are in no position to switch long-distance carriers. A pay phone at a prison can generate as much as $15,000 a year—about five times the revenue of a typical pay phone on the street. It is estimated that inmate calls generate a billion dollars or more in revenues each year. The business has become so lucrative that MCI installed its inmate phone service, Maximum Security, throughout the California prison system at no charge. As part of the deal it also offered the California Department of Corrections a 32 percent share of all the revenues from inmates' phone calls. MCI Maximum Security adds a $3.00 surcharge to every call. When free enterprise intersects with a captive market, abuses are bound to occur. MCI Maximum Security and North American Intelecom have both been caught overcharging for calls made by inmates; in one state MCI was adding an additional minute to every call.

Since 1980 spending on corrections at the local, state, and federal levels has increased about fivefold. What was once a niche business for a handful of companies has become a multibillion-dollar industry with its own trade shows and conventions, its own Web sites, mail-order catalogues, and direct-marketing campaigns. The prison-industrial complex now includes some of the nation's largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a "vast color selection." A directory called the Corrections Yellow Pages lists more than a thousand vendors. Among the items now being advertised for sale: a "violent prisoner chair," a sadomasochist's fantasy of belts and shackles attached to a metal frame, with special accessories for juveniles; B.O.S.S., a "body-orifice security scanner," essentially a metal detector that an inmate must sit on; and a diverse line of razor wire, with trade names such as Maze, Supermaze, Detainer Hook Barb, and Silent Swordsman Barbed Tape.

As the prison industry has grown, it has assumed many of the attributes long associated with the defense industry. The line between the public interest and private interests has blurred. In much the same way that retired admirals and generals have long found employment with defense contractors, correctional officials are now leaving the public sector for jobs with firms that supply the prison industry. These career opportunities did not exist a generation ago. Fundamental choices about public safety, employee training, and the denial of personal freedoms are increasingly being made with an eye to the bottom line.

One clear sign that corrections has become a big business as well as a form of government service is the emergence of a trade newspaper devoted to the latest trends in the prison and jail marketplace. Correctional Building News has become the Variety of the prison world, widely read by correctional officials, investors, and companies with something to sell. Eli Gage, its publisher, founded the paper in 1994, after searching for a high-growth industry not yet served by its own trade journal. Gage is neither a cheerleader for the industry nor an outspoken critic. He believes that despite recent declines in violent crime, national spending on corrections will continue to grow at an annual rate of five to 10 percent. The number of young people in the prime demographic for committing crimes, ages fifteen to twenty-four, is about to increase; and the demand for new juvenile-detention centers is already rising. Correctional Building News runs ads by the leading companies that build prisons (Turner Construction, CRSS, Brown & Root) and the leading firms that design them (DMJM, the DLR Group, and KMD Architects). It features a product of the month, a facility of the month, and a section titled "People in the News." An advertisement in a recent issue promoted electrified fences with the line "Don't Touch!"

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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