Captive Market

Jobs. Gadgets. Profits. Crime pays big-time for the prison-industrial complex.

All of which makes the Centennial State the perfect setting to contemplate the central paradox of the corrections game: At a time when violent-crime rates have been declining for years, why is it that the prison population keeps going up, up, up?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Lock-'em-up lawmakers, including Governor Bill Owens, have argued that crime is down because there are more prisons, stupid; in other words, the career criminals are off the streets. But there's actually little historical correlation between the crime rate and the rate of incarceration, and many criminals are never caught and convicted, much less imprisoned. The real reason for the prison boom, criminologists say, has to do with the transformation of the corrections industry over the past two decades into a revolving-door system of punishment, with only token efforts at rehabilitation.

Suthers alluded to some aspects of the transformation in his welcoming speech to the ACA brethren. Harsher penalties for drug offenders. Longer sentences. More parole revocations. More mentally ill inmates. (Colorado has more than 1,500 prisoners who've been diagnosed as chronically mentally ill but only 250 beds at the special prison designed to house such inmates.) A recidivism rate that, in Colorado, hovers officially around 40 percent but that some observers claim is as high as 60 percent.

A vendor pushes the virtues of the Spit Net.
Brett Amole
A vendor pushes the virtues of the Spit Net.
Biting the bullet: The Congress of Correction drew more than 500 exhibitors to Denver, including suppliers of bullet-resistant laminates that keep slugs in their place.
Brett Amole
Biting the bullet: The Congress of Correction drew more than 500 exhibitors to Denver, including suppliers of bullet-resistant laminates that keep slugs in their place.

Yet the former prosecutor didn't seem in the least chagrined by this litany of failure. "I've taken over a very good department that's dedicated to being even better," Suthers told the assembly.

The American Correctional Association's own role in the prison boom is as problematic as the growth itself. At the annual convention, which features professional seminars and workshops as well as a chance to shop for pepper spray, there was no shortage of speeches about the need for reform. Many members of the ACA -- a group that includes wardens, guards, counselors, parole officers and halfway-house operators -- readily acknowledge that overcrowded prisons are hard to manage; that the majority of the nation's inmates are nonviolent offenders; that thousands of them might be better handled in community corrections or diversion programs; that the boom has generated a wealth of problems as well as opportunities.

Yet down on the exhibit floor, even the problems are seen as opportunities -- an invitation for the private sector to cash in with more gadgets, more jobs, more prisons. Inmates are no longer simply a captive market; in many ways, they have become a commodity themselves. Imagine: 1.8 million live ones, in constant need of health care, feeding, commissary supplies, electronic monitoring, "after care" programs and spit containment.

Even as the private sector's involvement mounts, one group appears to have been shut out of the process entirely. ACA executive director James Gondles concedes that the public hasn't been sufficiently involved in shaping the direction of corrections policy, a situation he blames not simply on ignorance but indifference.

"Nobody wants to hear or read about a prison," Gondles says, "because when they do hear about it, it's because there was a killing, a riot, a disturbance of some kind. The governors' psychology is the same way. Several directors of prisons told me that when they came to work, their governors told them, 'Just keep us out of the newspapers.' In other words, keep a lid on it."

But Gondles believes that public concern about prison costs and conditions is rising. "We are going to see more citizens interested in jails and prisons," he predicts cheerily. "The rate of incarceration is becoming so high that we're going to reach a point where everyone knows someone who is in jail or prison."

The very first Congress of Correction was held in Cincinnati in 1870. Presiding over that historic event was Ohio governor and future U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes. At the time, the ACA was known as the National Prison Association. But that was before guards became "correctional officers," before convicts became "inmates" who received "placement" rather than incarceration, before the prison regimen became a matter of "programming," before throwing a prisoner into solitary confinement in a strip cell became known as "administrative segregation."

Newspeak is rampant in the Orwellian prison industry. There's even a movement afoot to refer to inmates as "clients" -- as if a change in labels would ensure that caged felons receive the same excellent service that lawyers, social workers and therapists dole out to their customers. The shift is part of the ACA's unflagging efforts to promote a more professional image for the industry.

One way the organization has sought to polish its reputation is to woo high-profile personalities to speak at its conventions. Recent gatherings have featured the likes of Attorney General Janet Reno and James Carville and Mary Matalin. This year's keynote speaker was former game-show host and 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs, the man who holds the record for longevity in network television -- not quite as venerable as Rutherford B. Hayes, but almost.

ACA director Gondles did his best to whip up enthusiasm for Downs, introducing him as "a walking, living awardee...a legend...a member of the Guinness Book of World Records...Mr. Broadcast Journalism!" Yet Downs's remarks to the assembly had nothing to do with prison reform or the professionalism movement. He gave a standard stump speech, full of mildly amusing anecdotes about the Paleolithic era of television. The crowd seemed to perk up only when, in response to a question from the floor, Downs launched into one of his pet peeves -- the abysmal failure of the war on drugs, which has filled prisons with hundreds of thousands of offenders whose crimes are directly related to their chronic substance abuse.

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