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The following is a summary of an article entitled, "Prisons-R-Us" on the American Correctional Association "prisonfest" held last month in Cincinnati, Ohio. The article appeared in The Dayton Voice on September 20 and was written by Alan Prendergast, a Denver based free-lance writer.
Copies of this issue of The Voice (Vol. 3, No. 38) can be obtained by sending $1.00 to: The Dayton Voice, 915 Salem Ave., Dayton, OH 45406.
Here's the summary:
Sponsored by the American Correctional Association (ACA), this Congress is the world's largest gathering of corrections professionals -- roughly 5,000 prison guards and administrators, educators, halfway house operators, and probation and parole officers. It's also a flag-waving, back-patting, glad-handing tribute to the growing power and prestige of the booming prison industry. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the keynote speaker, gushed, "You see the meanest, most vicious among us, and you protect us from them...Well, I'm here today to tell you how much this nation owes you."
And just how much does this nation owe the prison industry? Plenty, judging from the hordes of exhibitors who descend on the Congress every year, hoping to cash in on the prison boom. Even as Reno spoke, more than 500 vendors were setting up shop in the city's convention center, hawking everything from razor wire and fancy restaint beds to inmate phone services and modular cells that could be assembled like Lego blocks.
"Business is great," reported Cathy Perry, an account manager with Access Catalog of St. Louis, that sells approved TVs, clothing, stereos and other personal items to inmates by mail order, raking in roughly $5 million in sales last year...
Thanks to stiffer drug laws, tougher parole requirements, mandatory minimum sentences, "three strikes" laws and other legislation, the American prison population has tripled since 1980...The growth has been particularly dramatic -- and painful in Ohio, which now competes with California for the dubious honor of having the most overcrowded prison system in the country. Niki Schwartz, the Cleveland attorney who helped negociate an end to the Lucasville riot, is fond of pointing out that Ohio's prison budget was 1/6 of its higher education budget in 1982; as of 1993, it has risen to 1/3. "Soon we'll be spending more on corrections than on higher education, and that's crazy," Schartz declares.
Punishment, not rehabilitation, is the name of the game... At the 125th congress there was no shortage of speeches denouncing the current prison binge, an indication of the growing anxiety among corrections professionals over swollen budgets, crowded prisons, and increasing punitive legislation that is making those prisons harder to manage.
Jim Gondles, the soft-spoken, genial executive director of the ACA, says the biggest task facing the ACA is"educating people who don't work in corrections" about the industries growing professionalism and changing needs.
One of the ACA's principal sources of revenue is the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, which promotes professional standards and "audits" prisons as part of the accreditation process. Accreditation is no guarantee that conditions within a prison are constitutional or even safe, but the operators or more than 1,200 jails and prisons have invested millions in training and renovation in an effort to meet ACA standards.
Gondles urged "a balanced" approach to corrections, meaning more of everything: more halfway houses, more rehab programs, more boot camps, more prisons. And that's an agenda the corrections' industry boosters can live with -- espeacilly its gung-ho private sector constituency, which has expanded rapidly as public monies invested in corrections have soared.
Although private prisons are still a rarity, virtually every aspect of corrections now involves some degree of public-private partnership.
Some aspects of privitazation involve lucrative kickbacks to corrections agencies, at the expense of prisoners and their families. Phone companies bid agressively for the right to provide costly, hi-tech phone services to prisoners...the companies offer a commission on billing revenues to the prison that range as high as 35%. Inmate collect calls are a sore point with Charles Sullivan, director of CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), a national prison reform lobbying group.
The cost of an inmate phone call can vary widely from system to system, depending on what the phone companies can slide past the regulators. "We don't think that kind of gouging is right," Sullivan says, "Why should prisons be making money from families on inmate phone calls?"
Even the building of prisons is not as straightforward as it once was.
Typically, the state corrections system will "lease" a new prison from a state authority, which issues bonds through private underwriters such as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential. The investors receive a significantly higher rate of interest than that paid by general obligation bonds. "Prison bonds are a good investment," reports Brad Sprague, an investment banker with Columbus office of A.G. Edwards Co. "I put my kid's money in them. You get individual investors, bank trust departments, mutual funds, insurance companies -- they all know the state of Ohio isn't going to go out of the prison business anytime soon."
But Gondles senses that public concern about prison costs and conditions is rising. "We are going to see more citizens interested in jails and prisons, "he predicts, "The rate of incarceration is becoming so high that we are going to reach a point where everyone knows someone who is in jail or prison."
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