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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.)


Trade show
American Corrections Association convention, 1997.
(Click on the photo above to see a larger version.)
 
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!"

PRIVATE-prison companies are the most obvious, the most controversial, and the fastest-growing segment of the prison-industrial complex. The idea of private prisons was greeted with enthusiasm during the Reagan and Bush Administrations; it fit perfectly with a belief in small government and the privatization of public services. The Clinton Administration, however, has done far more than its Republican predecessors to legitimize private prisons. It has encouraged the Justice Department to place illegal aliens and minimum-security inmates in private correctional facilities, as part of a drive to reduce the federal work force. The rationale for private prisons is that government monopolies such as old-fashioned departments of corrections are inherently wasteful and inefficient, and the private sector, through competition for contracts, can provide much better service at a much lower cost. The privatization of prisons is often described as a "win-win" outcome. A private-prison company generally operates a facility for a government agency, or builds and operates its own facility. The nation's private prisons accepted their first inmates in the mid-1980s. Today at least twenty-seven states make use of private prisons, and approximately 90,000 inmates are being held in prisons run for profit.

The living conditions in many of the nation's private prisons are unquestionably superior to conditions in many state-run facilities. At least forty-five state prison systems are now operating at or above their intended capacity. In twenty-two states prisons are operating under court-ordered population caps. In fifteen states prison conditions are being monitored by the courts. Life in the aging, overcrowded prisons operated by many state agencies is dangerous and degrading. Most of the 34,000 state inmates currently being held in the nation's jails for lack of available prison cells live in conditions that are even worse. Private prisons tend to be brand-new, rarely overcrowded, and less likely to house violent offenders. Moreover, some private prisons offer programs, such as drug treatment and vocational training, that a number of state systems have cut back. And yet something inherent in the idea of private prisons seems to invite abuse.

The economics of the private-prison industry are in many respects similar to those of the lodging industry. An inmate at a private prison is like a guest at a hotel -- a guest whose bill is being paid and whose check-out date is set by someone else. A hotel has a strong economic incentive to book every available room and encourage every guest to stay as long as possible. A private prison has exactly the same incentive. The labor costs constitute the bulk of operating costs for both kinds of accommodation. The higher the occupancy rate, the higher the profit margin. Although it might seem unlikely that a private prison would ever try to keep an inmate longer than was necessary for justice to be served, New York State's experience with the "fee system" during the nineteenth century suggests that the temptation to do so is hard to resist. Under the fee system local sheriffs charged inmates for their stay in jail. A 1902 report by the Correctional Association of New York harshly criticized this system, warning that judges might be inclined to "sentence a man to jail where he may be a source of revenue to a friendly sheriff." Whenever the fee system was abolished in a New York county, the inmate population dropped -- by as much as half. Last year a Prudential Securities report on private prisons described some of the potential risks for the industry: a falling crime rate, shorter prison sentences, a move toward alternative sentences, and changes in the nation's drug laws. Nonetheless, the report concluded that "the industry appears to have excellent prospects."

Private-prison companies can often build prisons faster and at lower cost than state agencies, owing to fewer bureaucratic delays and less red tape. And new prisons tend to be much less expensive to operate than the old prisons still used in many states. But most of the savings that private-prison companies offer are derived from the use of nonunion workers. Labor represents 60 to 80 percent of the operating costs at a prison. Although private-prison companies are now moving into northern states and even signing agreements with some labor unions, the overwhelming majority of private-prison cells are in southern and southwestern states hostile to unions. Correctional officers in these private prisons usually earn lower wages than officers employed by state governments, while receiving fewer benefits and no pension. Some private-prison companies offer their uniformed staff stock options as a retirement plan; the long-term value of the stock is uncertain. The sort of cost-cutting imposed on correctional officers does not extend to managers and administrators. They usually earn much more than their counterparts in the public sector -- a fact that greatly increases the potential for conflicts of interest and official corruption.

Bed Brokers and Man-days

LAST 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."

Shift change
Shift change, Clinton prison, Dannemora, N.Y.
(Click on the photo above to see a larger version.)
 
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.

Continued...

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.


Eric Schlosser is a correspondent of The Atlantic. His article "A Grief Like No Other," about the families of murder victims, was The Atlantic's cover story for September, 1997.

Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; The Prison-Industrial Complex; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 51 - 77.

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