Captive Market

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

"We've managed to turn a medical problem into a crime problem," he said, generating a burst of applause.

Still, the selection of Downs as opening speaker was a revealing one. Of all the TV personalities commanding fat fees for personal appearances, it's hard to imagine one who would be more palatable to prison administrators than the grandfatherly Concentration veteran. Corrections executives frequently complain that they get about as much respect from most journalists as they do from spitting inmates.

"The media tend to paint us in a negative light," bemoaned convention panelist Garry Dennis, a deputy commissioner of corrections for the state of Kentucky. "People only see the bad things. We are becoming a profession, but we have some distance to go in rehabilitating our image with the general public."

Wired for more growth: Rising inmate populations have been a bonanza for the private sector, which now provides everything from barbed wire to "after-care" services.
Wired for more growth: Rising inmate populations have been a bonanza for the private sector, which now provides everything from barbed wire to "after-care" services.
Shake hands with the prison industry: Longer sentences and more parole failures have transformed corrections into a $40-billion-a-year proposition.
Brett Amole
Shake hands with the prison industry: Longer sentences and more parole failures have transformed corrections into a $40-billion-a-year proposition.


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"The Insiders"

A collection of articles on Colorado prisons.

The ACA pushes professionalism by offering its members a wide range of services and products, including extensive training manuals and videos, legislative liaison work, and a slick bi-monthly magazine, Corrections Today, bursting with ads that depict snarling inmates cursing the virtues of products such as unbreakable toilets ("I got ten years, but Santana is in here for life!"). One of its principal revenue sources, though, is its accreditation commission, which "audits" prisons on a regular basis so that they may be certified as meeting certain minimal professional standards.

Accreditation has become a kind of Holy Grail for the vast majority of jail and prison administrators. They've invested millions in training and renovation in an effort to meet ACA standards, believing that accreditation will improve security and staff morale, insulate them from lawsuits and upgrade their image. (Colorado's DOC now has eight fully accredited prisons, including its supermax, with more under consideration.) The push to meet the requirements, which address everything from cell space to kitchen sanitation to appropriate use of force, has made the ACA the primary arbiter of prison conditions outside the court system.

Yet accreditation is no guarantee that conditions within a prison are constitutional or even safe. In the wake of the overcrowding crisis, ACA standards have proven highly elastic; for example, a few years ago the association drastically reduced its minimum required cell space for medium-security inmates -- an acknowledgment that many double-bunked prisons couldn't meet the higher standards. Prison administrators have been known to move inmates out of violent, overcrowded prisons in order to meet ACA standards, only to move them back once accreditation has been achieved. Perhaps the most disturbing case of such body-swapping occurred at the notorious Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, which received the ACA's blessing in 1992. Fourteen months later, the Lucasville riot claimed the lives of nine inmates and one guard.

Three months ago, attorneys for inmates at a troubled juvenile prison in Louisiana refused to let their clients speak to ACA inspectors. The lawyers maintain that the ACA team had essentially ignored earlier inmate complaints about beatings by guards, inadequate mental-health and medical care, suicide attempts and widespread violence in the prison and had failed to address such allegations in their reports. "It's our feeling that the accreditation process is a sham," attorney David Utter told reporters.

Sham or not, accreditation remains a top priority for many corrections systems. Private prison operators are particularly hungry for the ACA's stamp of approval. The Corrections Corporation of America, the world's largest private-prison company, oversees 82 prisons and jails in 26 states, Puerto Rico, Australia and the United Kingdom. More than half of its stateside facilities are accredited by the ACA.

Founded in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors, the CCA has reported double-digit growth in recent years and has long been a hot pick of prison investors. Thrifty governors such as Bill Owens tend to welcome private contractors like the CCA because they save money -- usually by spending less on employee salaries, benefits and training than comparable state prisons. But the quality of private prisons varies widely; some are undoubtedly safer and offer better programs than their state counterparts, while others are considerably worse.

Two of the CCA's three Colorado prisons are accredited. The third, the Kit Carson Correctional Center outside Burlington, opened last winter and has been plagued with management problems, including lockdowns and frequent staff turnover and dismissals. But other CCA ventures have had rockier starts and prevailed, including a prison in Youngstown, Ohio, that logged thirteen stabbings and six escapes -- including those of five murderers -- in its first fourteen months of operation. Two years later, the Youngstown operation is now fully accredited.

Other aspects of privatization have escaped the ACA's passion for professional standards. One prominent exhibitor at the convention was TransCor America, a CCA subsidiary that has become the nation's biggest prisoner transport company. TransCor moves more than 60,000 prisoners annually, sometimes keeping them shackled in small vans for weeks at a time, with overnight stops in county jails and drunk tanks ("Just Hop on the Van, Man," December 18, 1997).

Inmate allegations about unsanitary and unsafe conditions, brutal treatment and even sexual assaults by TransCor staffers have generated numerous lawsuits against the company, including several in Colorado. TransCor has a $50 million liability policy, and company executives say that its employees adhere to strict policies regarding driving time and rest stops. But prisoners tell another story.

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