Captive Market

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.

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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast