Captive Market

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

Recently, an extraditee named Aaron Ruddy contacted Westword about his TransCor experience, a two-week odyssey in 1998 that took him from New York to a jail in Jefferson County. "Everybody who was on the van never had their shackles or handcuffs removed," he wrote. "I had sores on my ankles when I got to my final destination...The 'agents' frequently ignored TransCor's safety policies by speeding any chance they could get...You could tell that [they] needed to get some rest themselves when we had to give directions or point out road safety signs... When I complained about how little food we were being served, one of the agents told me that he has flushed bigger shits than me and said he was ready to take the restraints off me and kick my ass!

"At some point in this journey I ended up on a bus. The smell was even worse than the van because now there were forty prisoners or more that had been on the road for days without showers or clean clothes...[TransCor's] policy manual states that prisoners should be in transit an average of four days or less. Everybody that I talked to that has been extradited by this company was on the road for at least ten days.

"Colorado is so worried about saving a few dollars that they would and do put people through that kind of torture. We may have made some bad choices to get ourselves locked up, but we are still people."

Selling with restraint: AEDEC International's Violent Prisoner  Chair is designed for hard-to-control adults but also comes with "juvenile" accessories.
Selling with restraint: AEDEC International's Violent Prisoner Chair is designed for hard-to-control adults but also comes with "juvenile" accessories.
Boyz in the hood: Inventor John Cominsky demonstrates his solution for spitting inmates.
Boyz in the hood: Inventor John Cominsky demonstrates his solution for spitting inmates.


Related Westword articles

"The Insiders"

A collection of articles on Colorado prisons.

At present, there's no fat book of ACA standards governing the prisoner transport business -- and not much government oversight, either. TransCor boasts that its operation embraces the highest standards of training, safety and efficiency, but there are more stringent federal laws for shipping circus animals than there are for caged human beings.

Inmates shackled in vans or doing time in private big houses on the prairie aren't the only casualties of the prison boom. Increasingly, the keepers themselves are feeling battered by the lock-'em-up frenzy. At this year's ACA convention, seminars dealing with employee problems -- officer stress, ethical dilemmas, safety and liability issues, sexual-harassment complaints and so on -- were more prevalent (and tended to draw much larger crowds) than those focusing on prisoners and rehabilitation programs.

Working in corrections has always been a hazardous, thankless job, but the current wave of high-tech punishment and behavior-modification techniques has added a touch of the surreal. Old-time turnkeys may have had to watch out for the occasional "loony," but today's prison staffers preside over entire empires of the mentally ill -- as well as five-time losers who can't seem to stay straight and a growing number of lifers who have nothing to lose. Spitting is the least of the corrections professional's worries. In California, incidents of "gassing" -- the inmate practice of flinging cocktails made up of urine and feces on guards -- have gone up 40 percent in the past five years. There were 469 attempted gassings in 1998 alone.

Many of the new prisons are located in rural areas, and the locals who seek positions there are often not prepared for the indignities and pressures of the job. Nor are they inclined to talk about them. "I tell other officers' wives that I do the same job their husband does," said Kathleen Halladay, a Michigan corrections officer who appeared on the convention's "traumatic incident stress management" panel, "and they tell me, 'I don't know what my husband does.'"

"Corrections is not an easy job," noted Gary Cornelius, a Virginia jail official who spoke about stress on another panel. "You see people getting sick and burned out, and you wonder why. Inmates are our stressors. We can't get away from that."

Halladay has counseled staffers overwhelmed by the grim realities of the job, including one female officer who discovered three prisoners hanging in their cells in separate incidents over the course of a year. Cornelius is writing a book about how stressed-out officers become prone to violence themselves ("I've seen people go off on inmates for no reason") and are easy targets for manipulative prisoners.

Many corrections agencies are now developing stress-management classes and "debriefing" teams designed to counsel troubled employees before their behavior costs them their job. Sometimes the cost is even higher. Corrections officers, like other law-enforcement employees, are three times more likely to commit suicide than to die in the line of duty. Their suicide rate is significantly higher than that of the general population -- higher, even, than that of inmates.

Stress-reduction programs may make prisons more bearable for staff and prisoners alike, but triage work can do little to address what many critics see as the underlying problem with the prison-industrial complex: The system simply doesn't work.

If the goal of prisons is to protect the public from every conceivable form of criminal for a certain amount of time while ensuring that the offender will continue to commit crimes once he's released, then prisons work just fine. But if the goal is to do more than simply punish, then something else is needed, something that would address the industry's miserable recidivism rates and its inclination to simply warehouse its most difficult "clients."

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