Features > February 4, 2005
Cashing in on Cons
Undercover at the American Correctional Association’s 2005 Winter Conference
By Silja J.A. Talvi
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In 1971, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford attended the 101st Congress of the American Correctional Association (ACA) in Miami Beach. The ACA was founded in 1870 as the National Prison Association by reform-minded wardens who saw promise in the rehabilitation, religious redemption and humane treatment of prisoners. By 1971 they had developed a substantial membership, attracting 2,000 attendees to that year’s congress.
In her seminal 1973 book, Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business, Mitford reported that the organization had shifted its focus from reforming and rehabilitating prisoners to reaping profit from incarceration. Exhibitors, she wrote, sold everything from tear gas grenades to stun gun prototypes. And with prisons facing costly lawsuits instigated by prisoners, litigation, Mitford wrote, was “very much on everybody’s mind.”
Thirty years later, how much has changed?
The 2005 winter conference in Phoenix—attended by an estimted 4,000—found the ACA still touting its principles: “Humanity, Justice, Protection, Opportunity, Knowledge, Competence and Accountability.” The organization stresses that it brings together individuals and groups “that share a common goal of improving the justice system.” But with the prison industry now bringing in annual revenue of $50 billion, the ACA seems most intent on “improving” profits.
Today’s ACA is a sleeker version of the organization Mitford examined, complete with online certification courses for correctional employees (starting at $29.95) and an expensive prison accreditation process that claims to instill transparency and accountability. Members are enticed to earn accreditation in order to receive up to a 10 percent discount on prison liability insurance (see “A Dubious Distinction”).
Keeping litigation costs down is only one way prison corporations profit from incarceration. In addition, for-profit prisons also increase revenues by contracting with other corporations to provide substandard or overpriced services to prisoners. In some states, companies like Microsoft pay prisons to employ prisoners at wages far below market rates.
Taking advantage of the unprecedented prison boom of the late ’80s and ’90s, prison administrators, politicians, lobbying firms and corporate boards created a prison-industrial complex in which everyone benefits except the prisoners.
In 1980, federal and state prisons incarcerated 316,000 people. In 1990, that number had grown to 740,000, not including jail populations. By 2000, the number of prisoners had surpassed 1.3 million. Prison construction accompanied this growth: More than 1,000 prisons are now in operation, and each new prison comes with a bevy of contracts for construction and services.
The ACA conference is where many of these transactions are cemented.
Noting that the prison population may have reached its apogee, ACA President Gwendolyn C. Chunn told members at the conference, “We’ll have a hard time holding on to what we have now.” But attendees seemed more than willing to try; everyone at the conference seemed to be riding high on the promise of growth, expansion and profits.
This conference’s theme was “Corrections Contributions to a Safer World,” and the conference program didn’t try to hide the gathering’s militaristic bent. The cover of the 201-page ACA booklet featured a soldier with an enormous phallic tank gun, superimposed over the blue planet earth. And ACA’s three keynote speakers were prominent conservatives or military officers: retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, Michael Durant, the pilot of Black Hawk Down fame, and disgraced Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerik.
The conference was financially supported by private prison giants such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut), Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) and Correctional Medical Services (see “Detention Blues,” July 5, 2004 for background on CSC). The titles of the dozens of overlapping workshops indicated what the ACA defined as the latest trends in corrections: “Faith-Based Juvenile Programming,” “Anti-Terrorism in Correctional Facilities,” and “Can’t Simply Paint it Pink and Call it a Girl’s Program.”
One workshop—“Intensive Medical Management: How to Handle Prisoners Who Self-Mutilate, Slime, Starve, Spit and Scratch”—featured footage of a non-violent paranoid schizophrenic in Utah being forcibly extracted from his cell and then tied down to a restraint chair. After being strapped down naked for 16 hours, the delusional prisoner died. The session was facilitated by Todd Wilcox, the medical director of the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, who used the imagery as an example of how to avoid costly litigation. “Don’t get personal with this,” Wilcox said. “It’s just business.” He reminded the audience how important it is to sever the “emotional leash” that guards and nurses can form with inmates. He also referred to some mentally ill patients with “Axis II disorders” as “the people we affectionately call ‘the assholes.’ ”
Pain for a price
The real draw of the ACA conference was the exhibitors, who had two full days to showcase their wares. The exhibition hall corridors had been given names like “Corrections Corporation of America Court,” “Verizon Expressway,” “Western Union Avenue,” and “The GEO Court Lounge,” where one could sip Starbucks and eat free glazed doughnuts.
Here, the discussions were all about increasing profit margins, lessening risks and liabilities, winning court cases, and new, improved techniques and technologies for managing the most troublesome inmates. In the glaringly bright exhibit hall, attendees buzzed around booths, snapping up freebies and admiring the latest in prison technology.
Exhibitors hawked restraint chairs, tracking systems, drug-detection tools, suicide-prevention smocks and prison facility insurance. Dozens of companies competed to sell private health care systems, pharmacy plans, commissary services and surveillance systems. Of particular interest were behavior modification programs, juvenile boot camps, and Internet and phone services. Interest in the latter brought in the “big boys” of telecommunications: Sprint, AT&T, NEC, MCI Communications, Verizon, Global Tel*Link and Qwest. And why not? Prison phone contracts that overcharge prisoners and their families generate an estimated $1 billion a year.
The range of products went on from one corridor to the next: storage systems, money wiring, surveillance, security transport, fencing and prison medical packages. (Industry giant Prison Health Services brought in rescued owls and hawks to draw crowds. What was the connection to prison health? “Oh, nothing!”) Vendors who couldn’t afford dog-and-pony shows handed out free bags, pens, toothpicks, mugs, tape measures and sugarcoated churros. The exhibitors who didn’t need giveaways to draw crowds included weapons manufacturers Smith & Wesson, Glock and Taser International.
Two smiling exhibitors, standing behind the Taser booth, allowed the curious to handle the latest in 50,000-volt stun gun technology. On the Taser table a video looped on a monitor. It depicted a naked African-American man being chased down by police officers. Shot once he’s shown falling hard to the ground. Tasered again, his body shudders, before collapsing altogether. The contextless footage was meant to illustrate the efficacy of the stun gun, used by more than 6,000 police departments, that had become the leader in the “non-lethal weapons” industry—that is, before a spate of negative press, including reports of an SEC investigation, had put the company’s stock price into a tailspin.
In November 2004, Amnesty International issued a report that blamed at least 74 deaths since 2001 on Tasers and called for a suspension of their use until further studies could prove just how “non-lethal” these weapons were. Headline business news emerged during the ACA conference: Taser executives were reported to have sold $91.5 million of their own stock, raising suspicions that they sought to maximize their own profits before their product lost ground. The company subsequently announced that sales were projected to slow in the months to come. The stock plunged 30 percent. As if all that weren’t bad enough, Taser International President Tom Smith said in an interview that four active-duty police officers had been offered stock options for law enforcement training programs they supervised, which in turn had “led directly to the sale of Tasers to a number of police departments.”
It’s a good thing that former Taser spokesman Bernard Kerik cashed in when he did. The former New York City police commissioner made more than $6.2 million in pre-tax profits from the sale of Taser stock in the month leading up to his abortive Homeland Security nomination.
The venal system
Scores of individuals from prison acquisition and purchasing departments, consulting agencies, and the ranks of high-level prison administrators had come to the conference for networking, recruiting and, above all, business. Private contractors, like food service businesses Aramark and Canteen, discreetly targeted these attendees for their off-site wine-and-dine dinners, issuing covert invitations to people whose badges indicated their importance in the field.
Following a day of tours at Arizona jails and prisons, about 60 conference-goers headed to the Canteen fete at an upscale Italian restaurant in the nearby Arizona Center. Cocktails and bottles upon bottles of wine were poured out prior to a multicourse meal. Wardens and top-ranking corrections administrators from Arizona, New Mexico and Maryland sat in the outdoor patio under heat lamps. Salesmen from Canteen were pressing flesh and passing out business cards. There were smiles all around.
Like so many other private companies working in prisons, Aramark and Canteen have had their share of problems. Aramark was singled out by “Stop the ACA” union-organized protests outside of the conference. On the third day of the conference, protesters snuck in and placed informational materials in the toilet seat cover holders of convention center bathrooms.
On the fourth day of the conference, Aramark sought to spruce up its image with a faux-New Orleans-style gentleman’s “entertainer,” complete with pink top, feather cap and black fishnets. The heavily made-up young woman knelt before prison administrators, giving them free shoeshines.
Aramark’s low bids have succeeded in getting contracts in many jails and prisons. The company boasts that it provides more than a million meals a day to prisoners nationwide. Aramark materials also emphasize the company’s adherence to ACA standards, but that hasn’t stopped the allegations from piling up. In Dauphin County, Pa., for instance, a grand jury is investigating charges of overbilling and poor food quality. In July 2004, New Mexico inmates at Los Lunas prison, fed up with Aramark’s low food quality and “inedible” meat-type products, organized a hunger strike. Similar problems have been reported in at least a dozen states.
Privatization, politicians and payola
The glossy GEOworld magazine, distributed at the ACA conference, trumpeted the success of the largest “Private-Public Partnership in the World,” a sprawling detention center complex in Pecos, Texas. Known as the Reeves County Detention Facility (RCDC), the complex consists of prisons for both Bureau of Prisons and Arizona state inmates. According to GEO, “the joint venture … between GEO Group and Reeves County has been a rewarding challenge.”
Unmentioned was the fact that a Reeves County judge, Jimmy Galindo, is facing a lawsuit over his role in granting the private operation and expansive construction of RCDC. According to the local Odessa American newspaper, building RCDC has led to the “near financial ruin of the county.” RCDC is currently the subject of an FBI and Texas Ranger investigation into tampering with government documents. (In addition, two corrections officers resigned in early January 2005 over sexual molestation charges.)
The RCDC is a private-public partnership in more ways than one. Randy DeLay, the brother of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R–Tex.), lobbied the Bureau of Prisons to send its prisoners to RCDC, at the behest of county officials.
Randy DeLay isn’t the only member of his family with an interest in corrections. In December, Rep. DeLay accepted a $100,000 check from the CCA for the DeLay Foundation for Kids.
The CCA has become a leader in securing private prison contracts. In FY 2003, the CCA generated more than $268.9 million in revenue. Greasing the palms of legislators nationwide hasn’t hurt: In 2004, the CCA’s political action committee gave $59,000 to candidates for federal office—92 percent to Republicans.
This is part and parcel of an industry in the business of locking up human beings. As the industry has grown, the ACA has moved away from the ideals of rehabilitation and redemption of the human spirit. Today, human beings behind bars are little more than commodities to be traded on the open market.
Bill Deener, a financial writer for the Dallas Morning News, writing about recent gains in the private prison market, put it this way: “Crime may not pay, but prisons sure do.”
In 1963, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil.” Contained within the packed exhibition hall of the ACA conference was evidence of what Arendt cautioned against: the normalization of dehumanization. Today, the banality of evil has found a home in the mundane marketplace that is the prison industry.
Three days before the ACA conference, MSN Money’s Michael Brush issued a glowing report on the investment potential for the CCA and GEO. The children of the baby boomers, he explained, are about to enter the 18-24-year-old age group—“the years when people commit the most crimes.” He suggested now is the right time to buy into the trend: “[T]he nation’s private prison companies look like solid investments for the next several years.”
In reporting this story, the author did not disclose her identity as a journalist. All the attributed quotes in this article come from individuals speaking in an official capacity at ACA events.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is at work on a book about women in prison (Seal Press/Avalon).