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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Last AST year a videotape of beatings at a private correctional facility in Texas provoked a great deal of controversy. The tape showed correctional officers at the Brazoria County Detention Center kicking inmates who were lying on the floor, shooting inmates with a stun gun, and ordering a police dog to attack them. The inmates had been convicted of crimes in Missouri, but were occupying rented cells in rural Texas. One of the correctional officers in the video had previously lost his job at a Texas state prison and served time on federal charges for beating an inmate. The Brazoria County videotape received nationwide publicity and prompted Missouri to cancel its contract with Capital Correctional Resources, the private company operating the facility. But the beatings were unusual only because they were captured on tape. Incidents far more violent and surreal have become almost commonplace in the private prisons of Texas.

The private-prison system in Texas arose in response to the violence and disarray of the state system. In 1980 conditions in Texas state prisons were so bad that the federal judge William Wayne Justice ruled that they amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment." He appointed a special overseer for the prison system and ordered the state to provide at least forty square feet of living space for each inmate. By the mid-1980s, however, conditions had grown even worse: Texas prisons were more overcrowded; gang wars between inmates resulted in dozens of murders; and local jails were so crammed with the overflow of state inmates that a number of counties later sued the state for relief. In 1986 Judge Justice threatened the state with a fine of $800,000 a day unless it came up with a plan to ease the overcrowding in its prisons. While the Texas legislature scrambled to add new prison beds to the system, entrepreneurs sensed that profits could be made from housing state inmates in private facilities. Developers cut deals with sheriffs in impoverished rural counties, providing the capital to build brand-new jails, offering to run them, and promising to share the profits. Privately run correctional facilities sprang up throughout rural Texas, much the way oil rigs were once raised by wildcatters. The founders of one large private-prison developer, N-Group Securities, had previously sold condominiums and run a Houston disco. One critic quoted by the Houston Chronicle called the speculative new enterprises "Joe's Bar and Grill and Prisons."

The private-prison building spree in Texas—backed by investors such as Allstate, Merrill Lynch, Shearson Lehman, and American Express—soon faced an unanticipated problem. The State of Texas, under the auspices of a liberal Democratic governor, Ann Richards, began to carry out an ambitious prison-construction plan of its own in 1991, employing inmate labor and adding almost 100,000 new beds in just a few years. In effect the state flooded the market. Private firms turned to "bed brokers" for help, hoping to recruit prisoners from out of state. By the mid-1990s thousands of inmates from across the United States were being transported from overcrowded prison systems to "rent-a-cell" facilities in small Texas towns. The distances involved in this huge migration at times made it reminiscent of the eighteenth-century transport schemes that shipped British convicts and debtors to Australia. In 1996 the Newton County Correctional Center, in Newton, Texas, operated by a company called the Bobby Ross Group, became the State of Hawaii's third largest prison.

The private-prison industry usually charges its customers a daily rate for each inmate; the success or failure of a private prison is determined by the number of "man-days" it can generate. In a typical rent-a-cell arrangement a state with a surplus of inmates will contact a well-established bed broker, such as Dominion Management, of Edmond, Oklahoma. The broker will search for a facility with empty beds at the right price. The cost per man-day can range from $25 to $60, depending on the kind of facility and its level of occupancy. The more crowded a private prison becomes, the less it charges for each additional inmate. Facilities with individual cells are more expensive than those with dormitories. Bed brokers earn a commission of $2.50 to $5.50 per man-day, depending on how tight the market for prison cells is at the time. The county—which does not operate the prison but simply gives it legal status—sometimes gets a fee of as much as $1.50 a night for each prisoner. When every bed is filled, the private-prison company, the bed broker, and the county can do quite well.

The interstate commerce in prisoners, like many new industries, developed without much government regulation. In 1996 the State of Texas encountered a number of unexpected legal problems. Its private prisons were housing roughly 5,000 inmates from fourteen states. In August of that year two Oregon sex offenders escaped from a Houston facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. The facility normally held illegal aliens, under contract to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Faced with empty beds, CCA had imported 240 sex offenders from Oregon. Texas officials had no idea that violent offenders from another state were being housed in this minimum-security facility. The escaped prisoners were eventually recaptured—but they could not be prosecuted for escaping, because running away from a private prison was not a violation of any Texas state law. The following month a riot erupted at the Frio Detention Center, a private facility operated by the Dove Development Corporation, which housed about 300 inmates from Utah and Missouri. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had to send thirty of its officers in riot gear to regain control of the prison. A month later two Utah prisoners, one of them a convicted murderer, escaped from the same facility. A manhunt by state authorities failed to recapture them. Six other Utah inmates had previously escaped from facilities run by Dove Development; three were murderers. Last year the Texas legislature passed a bill that made it illegal for an offender from any state to escape from a private prison and that held the owners of such facilities responsible for any public expense stemming from riots or escapes. Few other states have even attempted to pass legislation dealing with these issues.

The private companies that now transport thousands of inmates across the United States every day face even less government oversight than private-prison companies. Indeed, federal regulations concerning the interstate shipment of cattle are much stricter than those concerning the interstate shipment of prisoners. Sheriff's deputies and U.S. marshals have traditionally been used to pick up inmates in one state and deliver them to another. During the late 1980s private companies began to offer the same service for about half the cost. The firms saved money by employing nonunion guards and making multiple pickups and deliveries on each trip. Prisoners today may spend as long as a month on the road, visiting dozens of states, sitting for days in the backs of old station wagons and vans, locked up alongside defendants awaiting trial and offenders on their way to prison. Driving one of these transport vehicles is a dangerous job, one that combines the stresses encountered by correctional officers with those of long-distance truckers. Moreover, prisoners tend to view their days in transit as an excellent time to attempt an escape. The turnover rate among the transport guards and drivers is high; the pay is relatively low; and training for the job rarely lasts more than a week. As a result, violent criminals are frequently shipped from state to state in the custody of people who are ill equipped to deal with them. Local authorities often don't learn that inmates are passing through their towns until something goes wrong.

In August of 1996 Rick Carter and Sue Smith, the husband-and-wife operators of R and S Prisoner Transport, were taking five murderers and a rapist from Iowa to New Mexico. At a public rest stop in the Texas Panhandle one of the convicts assaulted Carter on the way to the men's room. The others overpowered his wife and seized the van. Carter and Smith, who had set off unarmed, were taken hostage. A passing motorist dialed 911, and the six inmates were recaptured by Texas police officers after a chase. On July 30 of last year Dennis Patrick Glick—a convicted rapist, sentenced to two life terms, who was being transported from Utah to Arkansas—commandeered a van owned by the Federal Extradition Agency, a private company. One of the guards had fallen asleep, and Glick borrowed his gun. Glick took the guard and seven other inmates hostage in Ordway, Colorado; abandoned the van; took a local rancher hostage; stole two more vehicles and a horse; eluded sixty law-enforcement officers through the night; and was captured the next morning on horseback. In December of last year Homer D. Land, a prisoner being transported from Kansas to Florida, escaped from a van operated by TransCor America. The van had stopped at a Burger King in Owatonna, Minnesota. While one guard went inside and bought eleven hamburgers, the other guard (who had been a TransCor America employee for less than a month) opened the van's back doors for ventilation, enabling Land and two other inmates to get away. Land took a married couple hostage and spent the night at their house in Owatonna before being recaptured in Chicago. The same TransCor America van had been commandeered four days earlier by Whatley Roylene, a prisoner traveling from New Mexico to Massachusetts and facing charges of murder and armed robbery. At a gas station in Sterling, Colorado, Roylene grabbed a shotgun from a sleeping guard. Officers from the Colorado state police and the local sheriff's department surrounded the van; the standoff ended, according to a local official, when other prisoners persuaded Roylene to hand over the gun.

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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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