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Captive Market

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

John Cominsky wants people to know that the Tranzport Hood is easy to use. He demonstrates this by putting one on. The change in his appearance is remarkable.

In seconds, Cominsky no longer resembles an inventor and enterprising businessman. Instead, he looks like a dangerous maniac. A maniac with a pair of pantyhose on top of his head and a diaper around his mouth.

"It's not pretty, but it works," Cominsky murmurs through the hood, quoting from his own sales brochure. "See how it stays in place? They can't brush it away." He shakes his head, unable to free his lips from the confining elastic of the diaper, which is made of the same "layered bacteria-filtering medical fabric" used in surgeons' masks.

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.
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.
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.

The Tranzport Hood may be a low-tech entry in the war on crime, but Cominsky insists it's a necessary one. The hood is designed for handcuffed, belligerent prisoners who are inclined to spit or bite while being transported. It should be used "immediately after a prisoner has spit or threatened to do so," the brochure advises, to minimize the corrections officer's risk of exposure to AIDS, hepatitis and other viruses; it also reduces the odds of some tubercular convict coughing or sneezing on you. At $3.75 a pop, the disposable hood is "the Fast, Easy, Inexpensive way to protect you and your fellow officers from possible illnesses and the uncomfortable feeling of being spit on!"

That uncomfortable feeling is so widespread in the prison business that Cominsky isn't the only hood vendor displaying his wares at the American Correctional Association's 129th annual Congress of Correction, a massive confluence of prison executives and suppliers. Just a short walk from Cominsky's booth at the Colorado Convention Center -- down the aisle and to the left, past the stun guns, water cannons, surveillance cameras, body armor ("Extreme Comfort in Extreme Situations") and suicide-resistant toilet fixtures -- lurks Tranzport Hood's chief competitor, Eagle Gear, manufacturer of the Spit Net.

Eagle Gear has a larger booth than the Tranzport Hood. The literature is slicker, the product line more extensive; in addition to the Spit Net, Eagle also touts the Control Bar (a metal bar that slips over handcuffs, allowing you to "guide and steer the prisoner without putting yourself at risk"), the Tube (a "hand containment system" that prevents manacled prisoners from grabbing weapons or keys) and the Mitt (hand containment for "those on the move"). The California-based company also has a full-sized mannequin to model its Spit Net, leaving the sales staff free to concentrate on their pitch.

"Officer safety is a big deal," notes Eagle vice president Jerry Bennett. "We had a lot of calls for something that could protect officers from the airborne pathogens that are out there. We came out with this product, and it really caught fire fast."

The Spit Net may have hit the market first, but Cominsky, a former carpet installer from South Carolina, says he patented his hood design several years ago. And the original Spit Net is an awkward thing with straps, reminiscent of a beekeeper's helmet; the new, improved, strapless Spit Net looks a lot like -- well, the Tranzport Hood. "We believe we offer a better product for less money," Cominsky says.

It's the hardy dream of the 1990s entrepreneur: Build a better spit-containment system, and the booming prison industry will beat a path to your door. But flying mucus is only one of many concerns facing America's jail and prison administrators as they seek to feed, house, clothe and manage an inmate population that's now pushing the two million mark. The opportunity for niche products is endless. Looking for rugged outerwear that can deflect shanks, shivs and icepicks? Check out the Safariland StabPro vest. Have a hankering for bar-coded plastic bracelets that allow guards to scan inmates like so many sacks of potatoes? Say hello to the Clincher Inmate Identification Wristband. Because disgruntled inmates tend to stuff things down their suicide-resistant toilets, there's even an emerging "problem solids reduction industry" -- dominated by the Muffin Monster, a huge green grinder that's an essential add-on to any prison sewer system.

In all, more than 500 exhibitors descended on downtown Denver this past month, hawking everything from razor wire and body-cavity probes to inmate phone services, health and food services and entire modular housing units that snap together like Lego blocks. Some of the biggest exhibitors included Colgate-Palmolive and US West, leading construction contractors and architectural firms, and private companies that build and operate their own prisons under contract with state governments. The five-day Congress of Correction, which attracts 6,000 corrections professionals from across the United States and Canada, is the largest gathering of its kind in the world, an occasion for the industry to take stock of itself. And from Wall Street's perspective, it's very good stock indeed. Once the most obscure and unmentionable of all public expenditures, corrections is now a $40 billion-a-year proposition.

It's fitting that this year's ACA gathering was held in Colorado. As state Department of Corrections chief John Suthers noted in greeting the attendees, Colorado's Fremont County, which boasts nine state prisons and four federal lockups, "proudly calls itself the corrections capital of America." The state's inmate population has more than doubled in the past decade and continues to increase at a rate that's twice the national average -- making the DOC one of the fastest-growing gorillas in state government, second only to the Department of Transportation. Since 1995, the DOC has increased its number of employees by 20 percent, its payroll by nearly 50 percent. Although the agency has added thousands of new beds in recent years and continues to build new prisons, it can't keep up with the crush; currently one out of every five state inmates is housed in a private prison.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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."

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."

In recent years, the hottest growth area in the business has been in the field of community corrections, electronic monitoring and halfway houses, with private industry leading the way. The demand for re-entry programs has generated a mini-boom for companies that provide a mix of 24-hour surveillance, drug testing, job placement and headshrinking that's supposed to somehow transform seasoned cons into productive members of society -- while protecting the public from the truly bad apples.

"We're putting away a lot of the wrong people," says James Anderson, a vice president at BI Incorporated, a Boulder company that's become the nation's leading supplier of electronic monitoring services. "I really believe that what's needed are after-care products for high-risk people. We spend $100,000 or more putting someone into prison, and we don't do anything when they get out but make them report to a parole officer. They should be at home at night for the first year and monitored very heavily."

An outfit that began by putting transmitters on cows in the 1970s, BI now has its ankle bracelets on parolees, those on probation and other offenders in community settings across the country. The company has also moved aggressively into developing its own community-corrections service centers -- places to which parolees report for drug tests, counseling and other services. BI now operates more than eighty such centers, including sites in Capitol Hill and Lakewood.

"Our programs are structured to require accountability, provide immediate feedback and administer consequences for self-defeating behavior patterns," boasts the BI convention literature. "Our staff assist clients to develop pro-social thinking and attitudes and to confront entrenched, maladaptive patterns of behavior."

BI claims to be "reducing offender risk by meeting offender needs." But even the most comprehensive re-entry program tends to have a high failure rate, in part because the most critical offender needs have been scarcely addressed during the miscreant's years in prison. Within the walls, long-term rehabilitative programs with a proven track record -- programs that focus on education, job training and conquering substance abuse -- have taken a backseat to the rage to punish.

Up to 80 percent of all inmates have a history of substance abuse, and recidivism rates drop significantly for those who complete drug programs while still in the system. But intensive, effective programs are often unavailable or over-subscribed. One 1996 study found 840,000 federal and state prisoners in need of drug treatment, but fewer than 150,000 received such treatment before being released. Educational programs, a favorite target of politicians blustering about the "privileges" prisoners supposedly enjoy, have also languished; when DOC officials were asked to rank prison programs in order of priority, educational offerings made the 25th spot on a list of 42. Vocational education was ranked 35th.

Of course, offenders rarely have a voice in determining what their true "needs" might be. The prison industry doesn't pay much attention to the views of prisoners; what does the client know about the business, anyway? Amid the throng of experts speaking at its convention, the ACA had only one professed ex-jailbird on the program, a Canadian named Rene Durocher.

Durocher spent 22 years in prison on a 47-year sentence for armed robbery. He's now working with an innovative program called Life Line, which brings successful parolees back into the prisons to work with lifers, encouraging them to make productive use of their time. Canada abolished its death penalty in 1976, and most of those serving life sentences -- even murderers -- have a chance to apply for a lifelong parole after fifteen or twenty years.

"I'm the best resource the staff can have," Durocher says. "I understand these people; I spent my life with them. My job is to tell them, 'You have to take charge of your own life. You can do the program and play the game -- but if you want to change, you have to do it yourself.'"

Thirty-three of Durocher's lifers have been released on parole in the past five years. Six are now back in prison -- one for drunk driving, the other five for parole violations. The program's overall success rate is well above 90 percent. "I am 100 percent sure that if inmates inside American prisons were allowed this same opportunity, they could succeed," Durocher insists.

But such a program would be virtually impossible in a state like Colorado. The DOC doesn't permit any former inmates, even would-be do-gooders, to visit its facilities for at least five years. And these days, a life sentence usually means life without parole; those who were sentenced under older, indeterminate sentencing schemes remain in a state of limbo. Colorado has exactly two lifers in halfway houses at the moment. Despite the fact that both have long records of good behavior within the system, neither is expected to be granted parole in the near future.

This was the first time Durocher had been to an ACA convention. He visited the exhibit floor and marveled at all the elaborate apparatuses of punishment and at the lack of viable rehabilitation programs. Ironically, many of the nonprofit organizations that work hardest on prison-reform issues -- the Volunteers of America, various prison ministries -- were tucked in a row at the very back of the hall.

"I'm not impressed with the industry," Durocher says. "It's unbelievable what is happening here. I look at this country, and it's one of the most violent in the world. When you see the way crime has been dealt with in the United States, it's obvious that it doesn't work. Why don't you take a chance with something else?"

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