The incarceration industry generates $30 billion a year in the
One by one the bosses clip-clop over to one of the guard towers that surround the prison. They chat for a while among them- selves, waiting amiably on horseback. Above them, the picket guard attaches a rope to a plastic milk crate, then lowers the crate over the side. Inside the crate are the bosses' guns.
They are .357 Magnums, and the bosses are authorised to shoot to kill. When the crate reaches saddle height, each boss dips in and grabs one. There is one more guard on horseback, and he stays aloof from the others. He is known as the Highrider and he is armed not with a pistol, but with a rifle: a .30-30 capable of picking off a running inmate at several hundred yards.
The inmates line up two by two for their work detail. They have been awake since 3.30 a.m., the start of their morning feeding . . . For hours, the men will pound the ground . . . clearing acres of land in a process known as flatweeding . . . To pass the time, the inmates, nearly half of whom are black, sing work songs. This is old music, handed down from generation to generation of convicts. Some of it dates back to the days of the plantation.
The SHU (Secure Housing Unit) is de- signed to deaden the senses. The cells are windowless; the walls are white. From in- side the cell, all one can see through the perforated metal door is another white wall. . . . It is surreally quiet . . . very much like an intensive care ward. The lighting is subdued and even the guards speak in whispers. In the control room, computer screens glow with luminous, pulsing cursors and video monitors flicker with grainy black- and-white images from surveillance cam- eras . . . Charles Manson lives here.
These are the twin faces of American incarceration. Chain-gangs break rocks
What drives this headlong rush towards the unimaginable? Prison is no longer
just a crime and punishment business, it is a money business. From the
chain-gang to the isolation unit, incarceration has become one of
Joe Hallinan is haunted by prison sounds. "They say you never forget the clang of the doors slamming behind you, and they're right," he says. "The shrieks of the inmates in the segregation units, the rhythmic pounding of feet on doors; it never leaves you."
Hallinan, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, never wanted to go inside -
until he met Jack Kyle. A tough
The result is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Hallinan's
devastating examination of the 21st-century prison industry. He first glimpsed
that industry's power in a
Abandoned by heavy industry and bypassed by the electronic revolution, many
failing towns in the
Federal and state prisons have been features of the
But new players have arrived on the
Before 1983, there were no private prisons in the
They call it "selling the walls". Corporations such as CCA assemble
pre-fabricated modular units, minimising construction costs. Small
"pods" of cells surround a control booth, enabling one guard to do the
work that five traditionally did. (Payroll is 75 per cent of a typical prison's
operating costs.) Like a hotel - charging the client state, say, $50 per day per
inmate - the private prison sub-contracts all services from food to medical
care, then takes its cut. Telephone companies such as AT&T and MCI, for
example, compete for prisoners, who make $1 billion worth of calls every year.
The numbers make sense. According to the industry's own figures, when a
private firm takes over an existing state prison, there is a 10 per cent saving.
When it operates a prison of its own design, the saving is 15 per cent. Convict
labour is also transformed. "At the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution
. . . inmates don't make licence plates any more," Hallinan writes.
"They make money . . . $6.25 an hour, on average, manufacturing casual
clothing. The prison here, like prisons across
Companies like Lee Jeans, Boeing, Victoria's Secret and Eddie Bauer all farm
work out to prison labour, and one California correctional agency uses prisoners
to make TWA's airline reservations. This, according to its critics, is the new
"prisonindustrial complex". State-run prisons draw similar criticism.
"So this is going to breathe new life into our town," scoffs Kurt
Staudter, another opponent of the
Corporations such as CCA, citing prison overcrowding, say that they are
filling a need.
A source within the
According to the Bureau of Prisons, 58 per cent of the nation's inmates are jailed for drug offences, thanks chiefly to anti-drug legislation enacted during the 1980's. "By 1995, under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the average federal prison term served for selling crack cocaine was nearly 11 years," explains Hallinan. "For homicide, by comparison, the national average was barely six."
You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about the connection between an exploding prison population and an industry that profits from incarceration. Morgan Reynolds, who directs criminal justice programmes at the National Centre for Policy Analysis, described his vision of the future for Hallinan. Wardens become "marketers of prison labour . . . that's the best way to grow our prison population".
Hallinan thinks the conspiracy theory too crude. "But you now have enough businessmen - and corrupt politicians - with a financial interest in heightening the public perception of crime and expanding the prison industry," he concedes. "Fear drives the whole machine."
All over the
Affluent white Americans fear crime the most. But black Americans suffer it most and have a disproportionate chance of being imprisoned. Today's prison population is 49 per cent black and 18 per cent Hispanic. That statistic represents one of the largest migrations in American history: of young urban men, mostly belonging to minorities, to new prisons. "In the black community, this is seen as black men being exported to white areas to make a profit for the white man," explains Hallinan. "It's not slavery, of course. These people have committed crimes and deserve to be punished. But in the black community the echoes of slavery are extremely strong."
To which most Americans might respond: "So what. Jail should be tough." For hardliners, the new "supermax" jail - with its sanitising corporate language and its emphasis on profit and efficiency - may even sound too nice.
Hardly. "These concrete cubicles are so spartan, so devoid of stimulation, that their success is measured . . . by how much inmates detest them," Hallinan writes of the newest facilities where inmates are locked in windowless cells. "They press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate," one judge recently concluded.
"I go into those cells every day," the
Working inside the booming new prison economy takes its own toll. On April
21st, the New York Times reported "a severe shortage of guards around the
country", partly due to the "explosion of prison building" and
increased prison violence. The starting salary for a guard averages $23,000, but
desperate states like
"You know what your duties are today," Curt Bowman, president of the officers' union at "Little Siberia", a maximum-security prison on the Canadian border, tells his recruits. "Go to work. Come out alive." Hallinan's book is filled with chilling reports of inmate and officer brutality. So why work inside? "My wife and I have been married 28 years and lived 19 years in a travel trailer," one guard responds. Another says: "Be 54 and try to go out and buy health insurance."
Even its supporters admit that the current system brutalises inmates and enforcers alike. Opponents of prison expansion and privatisation question not only the individual but also the social cost. "Educating children, punishing criminals - these are government responsibilities," insists Staudter, contemplating his town's new prison. "But the way they feed people into the prison system now, a kid has a better chance of going to jail than of going to college."
Joe Hallinan predicts that a slowing economy may teach states how expensive
their new prisons really are. In 1980, prisons cost each
Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan is
published by Random House (hardback, $24.95 in US).
Over the past 20 years, the
The federal government currently predicts that one in every 11 men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. For black men, the odds rise to one in four. The current prison population is 49 per cent black, 18 per cent Hispanic.
For the past two decades, the
Forty per cent of prisoners cannnot cannot read.
During the 2000 elections, an estimated 3.9 million Americans - one in 50
adults - were denied their right to vote due to felony and another convictions.
Of that number, 1.4 million had completed their sentences. Another 1.4 million
were on probation or parole. Thirteen per cent of black adult males have lost
their voting rights based on criminal conviction (that is, one-third of the
total of disenfranchised voters). Human Rights Watch reports that in the states
with the most restrictive voting laws - in the south and west - 40 per cent of
blacks are likely to be permanently disenfranchised (in such states, a convicted
criminal loses his voting rights for life).
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