Prison Business (8/01)


Beeville, Texas: 4.30 a.m.

One by one the bosses clip-clop over to one of the guard towers that surround the prison. They chat for a while among themselves, waiting amiably on horseback. Above them, the picket guard attaches a rope to a plastic milk crate, then lowers the crate over the side. Inside the crate are the bosses’ guns.

They are .357 Magnums, and the bosses are authorized to shoot to kill. When the crate reaches saddle height, each boss dips in and grabs one. There is one more guard on horseback, and he stays aloof from the others. He is known as the Highrider, and he is armed not with a pistol, but with a rifle: a .30-30 capable of picking off a running inmate at several hundred yards. 

The inmates line up two by two for their work detail. They have been awake since 3.30 a.m., the start of their morning feeding…. For hours, the men will pound the ground, clearing acres of land in a process known as flatweeding. To pass the time, the inmates, nearly half of whom are black, sing work songs. This is old music, handed down from generation to generation of convicts. Some of it dates back to the days of the plantation.

Pelican Bay, California, midmorning

The SHU (Secure Housing Unit) is designed to deaden the senses. The cells are windowless; the walls are white. From inside the cell, all one can see through the perforated metal door is another white wall. It is surreally quiet, very much like an intensive care ward. The lighting is subdued and even the guards speak in whispers. In the control room, computer screens glow with luminous, pulsing cursors and video monitors flicker with grainy black-and-white images from surveillance cameras. Charles Manson lives here.

These are the twin faces of American incarceration. Chain-gangs break rocks in Texas, swinging their hammers to the rhythm of songs first chanted by slaves. Prisoners in futuristic isolation cells hear only the buzz of fluorescent light, the hum of computerized ventilation. Today, approximately 1.8 million Americans are behind bars; no other nation imprisons more of its citizens. At the current growth rate, by the year 2050 half of the US population will be incarcerated.

The prospect is, of course, absurd: society would cease to function. But what drives this headlong rush towards the unimaginable?

Prison is no longer just a crime and punishment business, it is a money business. From the chain gang to the isolation unit, incarceration has become one of America’s fastest-growing industries, a sure thing in a softening economy. Generating over $30 billion a year in the US — more than baseball, more than pornography — the thriving prison industry has created millionaires with a vested interest in filling cells and employees with a fatalistic attitude to their long-term guests. "Let’s face it," one warden recently remarked, "they’re here to die."

Joe Hallinan is haunted by prison sounds. "They say you never forget the clang of the doors slamming behind you, and they’re right," he says. "The shrieks of the inmates in the segregation units, the rhythmic pounding of feet on doors; it never leaves you."

Hallinan, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, never wanted to go inside — until he met Jack Kyle. A tough Texas warden, Kyle always believed in locking people up, still does. But, he confided in Hallinan, things are getting out of hand. "Everybody wants ’em," Kyle observed of the new "supermax" prisons that squat like sinister shopping malls on the outskirts of small towns across the US.

The sign outside one Illinois hamlet says: "Welcome to Tamms/The Home of Supermax." And guess what its Burger Shack special is called?

Intrigued, Hallinan spent four years visiting prisons across the country, from California to the rural south. "I just kept writing," he recalls. "In hotel rooms, in airports, on the hood of my car. Writing and saying to myself: ‘Oh my God, people are never going to believe this.’"

The result is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Hallinan’s devastating examination of the 21st-century prison industry. He first glimpsed that industry’s power in a Texas courtroom at the trial of Joe Boy Lambright, the first prison guard in Texas history convicted of killing an inmate. "I saw how the merger of punishment and profit was reshaping this country," Hallinan writes. "How young men like Joe Boy, who might, in another generation, have joined the army or gone to work in a factory, were now turning to prison for their livelihood. I saw job hungry towns, desperate for something to keep their young people from leaving, compete for prisons the way they once had for industries . . ."

Abandoned by heavy industry and bypassed by the electronic revolution, many failing towns in the US’s mid-section and south now have a final shot at prosperity. They can become "prison hubs." Just as the Cold War bestowed military bases on grateful backwaters, so the prison boom holds out cash incentives and employment prospects to decaying towns. "The sales pitch to our town was development," explains Doug Richards, an attorney in Springfield, Vermont. Richards recently opposed the imminent construction of a 350-bed state prison outside Springfield, but concedes that the inducements were too attractive for the struggling factory town to refuse. "The state of Vermont offered a package of some $7.5 million and land for a community center. That sold it to the voters."

Federal and state prisons have been features of the US landscape since the 19th century; many have become part of the collective imagination: Sing Sing, Folsom, Angola, San Quentin. This is a sealed, self-referential world with its own Johnny Cash soundtrack, its own movie legends. But new players have arrived on the US prison stage: private corporations who now compete with state governments for lucrative prison contracts. "So keen is the competition between public and private that the bottom line drives nearly all decisions behind bars in this country," Hallinan explains, "from the food the inmates eat to the type of work they do — even to the TV shows they get to watch…. Television acts like ‘electric Thorazine.’ It keeps inmates tranquil, and a tranquil inmate is a cheap inmate."

Before 1983, there were no private prisons in the US; Today there are over 150. They are owned by a variety of firms, the oldest and largest being the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In 1997, CCA’s stock doubled on Wall Street, fetching over 50 times its earnings on the previous year, a performance rivaled only by the fastest-growing technology stocks. That same year, Wackenhut, CCA’s closest rival, reported $8.3 million in profits on $137.8 million in revenues. That, says Joe Hallinan, "is the genius of American prison expansion. Having failed to make prisons effective, we have learned to make them profitable."

They call it "selling the walls." Corporations such as CCA assemble pre-fabricated modular units, minimizing construction costs. Small "pods" of cells surround a control booth, enabling one guard to do the work that five traditionally did. (Payroll is 75 percent of a typical prison’s operating costs.) Like a hotel — charging the client state, say, $50 per day per inmate — the private prison sub-contracts all services from food to medical care, then takes its cut. Telephone companies such as AT&T and MCI, for example, compete for prisoners, who make $1 billion worth of calls every year. In 1997, New York made $21.2 million from prison telephone call commissions.

The numbers make sense. According to the industry’s own figures, when a private firm takes over an existing state prison, there is a 10 percent saving. When it operates a prison of its own design, the saving is 15 percent. Convict labor is also transformed. "At the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution…inmates don’t make license plates any more," Hallinan writes. "They make money…$6.25 an hour, on average, manufacturing casual clothing. The prison here, like prisons across America, is turning itself into a for-profit factory, cashing in on a tight labor market." Roughly half an inmate’s hourly wage goes to the prison corporation.

Companies like Lee Jeans, Boeing, Victoria’s Secret and Eddie Bauer all farm work out to prison labor, and one California correctional agency uses prisoners to make TWA’s airline reservations. This, according to its critics, is the new "prisonindustrial complex." State-run prisons draw similar criticism. "So this is going to breathe new life into our town," scoffs Kurt Staudter, another opponent of the Springfield, Vermont prison. "They’ll have inmates working there for 25 or 50 cents an hour. How is a local cabinet shop or tool-maker supposed to compete with that kind of slave labor?" Many in Springfield also fear the eventual takeover of the state prison by a private company, a growing trend all over the US.

Corporations such as CCA, citing prison overcrowding, say that they are filling a need. Oklahoma’s inmates, for example, are still housed in that state’s 1908 prison, despite the fact that their numbers have tripled in the last 15 years. A source within the New England prison system, who requested anonymity, rejects the argument. "There are plenty of empty cells in our prisons," he insists, speaking from 15 years experience. "But saying that is not good for business. This industry depends on feeding itself. It has to say there’s a crisis."

According to the Bureau of Prisons, 58 per cent of the nation’s inmates are jailed for drug offenses, thanks chiefly to anti-drug legislation enacted during the 1980’s. "By 1995, under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the average federal prison term served for selling crack cocaine was nearly 11 years," explains Hallinan. "For homicide, by comparison, the national average was barely six."

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about the connection between an exploding prison population and an industry that profits from incarceration. Morgan Reynolds, who directs criminal justice programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis, described his vision of the future for Hallinan. Wardens become "marketers of prison labor… that’s the best way to grow our prison population".

Hallinan thinks the conspiracy theory too crude. "But you now have enough businessmen — and corrupt politicians — with a financial interest in heightening the public perception of crime and expanding the prison industry," he concedes. "Fear drives the whole machine." All over the US, Hallinan encountered a common perception of soaring crime. Yet most people, particularly in prison-loving states like Texas, could not cite personal examples. "I gradually began to see it as parallel to the Communist scare in the 1950s," Hallinan recalls. "Back then, the generalized fear bred a huge military arsenal. Now it breeds prisons."

Affluent white Americans fear crime the most. But black Americans suffer it most and have a disproportionate chance of being imprisoned. Today’s prison population is 49 percent black and 18 per cent Hispanic. That statistic represents one of the largest migrations in American history: of young urban men, mostly belonging to minorities, to new prisons. "In the black community, this is seen as black men being exported to white areas to make a profit for the white man," explains Hallinan. "It’s not slavery, of course. These people have committed crimes and deserve to be punished. But in the black community the echoes of slavery are extremely strong."

To which most Americans might respond: "So what. Jail should be tough." For hardliners, the new "supermax" jail — with its sanitizing corporate language and its emphasis on profit and efficiency — may even sound too nice.

Hardly. "These concrete cubicles are so spartan, so devoid of stimulation, that their success is measured by how much inmates detest them," Hallinan writes of the newest facilities where inmates are locked in windowless cells. "They press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate," one judge recently concluded.

"I go into those cells every day," the New England prison worker agrees, "and they are mind-altering, designed to break a man down. I’m surprised more don’t try to kill themselves."

Working inside the booming new prison economy takes its own toll. On April 21, the New York Times reported "a severe shortage of guards around the country," partly due to the "explosion of prison building" and increased prison violence. The starting salary for a guard averages $23,000, but desperate states like Oklahoma are now lowering their minimum recruitment age from 21 to 18.

"You know what your duties are today," Curt Bowman, president of the officers’ union at "Little Siberia," a maximum-security prison on the Canadian border, tells his recruits. "Go to work. Come out alive." Hallinan’s book is filled with chilling reports of inmate and officer brutality. So why work inside? "My wife and I have been married 28 years and lived 19 years in a travel trailer," one guard responds. Another says: "Be 54 and try to go out and buy health insurance."

Even its supporters admit that the current system brutalizes inmates and enforcers alike. Opponents of prison expansion and privatization question not only the individual but also the social cost. "Educating children, punishing criminals — these are government responsibilities," insists Staudter, contemplating his town’s new prison. "But the way they feed people into the prison system now, a kid has a better chance of going to jail than of going to college."

Joe Hallinan predicts that a slowing economy may teach states how expensive their new prisons really are. In 1980, prisons cost each US citizen an average of $30 per year; by 1992, they cost $123 per year. But for now, the industry grows, expanding its markets in Europe, Australia and Africa (nine UK prisons are currently owned or managed by Wackenhut).

Sitting on the hood of his car one night, counting the stars in the south Texas night sky, Joe Hallinan noticed "an incandescent glow where no lights should be. After a while it occurred to me that what I was seeing was not the light of some forgotten town, but the glow of a new American city". Prison, USA. 

Prison, USA: The Figures

Over the past 20 years, the US prison population has quadrupled to approximately 1.8 million, which represents 455 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens. The federal government currently predicts that one in every 11 men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. For black men, the odds rise to one in four. The current prison population is 49 per cent black, 18 per cent Hispanic. For the past two decades, the US has experienced the biggest prison construction boom in its history, and now spends some $21 billion a year on prison construction and maintenance. Like many other states, California spends more on prisons than it does on higher education.  Forty per cent of prisoners cannot read. During the 2000 elections, an estimated 3.9 million Americans – one in 50 adults – were denied their right to vote due to felony and another convictions. Of that number, 1.4 million had completed their sentences.  Another 1.4 million were on probation or parole. Thirteen per cent of black adult males have lost their voting rights based on criminal conviction (that is, one-third of the total of disenfranchised voters). Human Rights Watch reports that in the states with the most restrictive voting laws – in the south and west – 40 per cent of blacks are likely to be permanently disenfranchised (in such states, a convicted criminal loses his voting rights for life).

Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan is published by Random House (hardback, $24.95 in US). Article originally published by the Irish Times: 2001

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