Page 25


Auti414/ ,, wh. s !,,,, DATELINE TEXAS The Business of Corrections A Bright Future for a Recession-Proof Industry BY ANNE FARBMAN Ingenious. A security fence that not only detects and electrocutes anyone unlucky enough to touch it, but also contains breakaway segments that make climbing impossible. A few booths over, a man politely asks that a reporter not photograph his display of defused stun, stinger and gas grenades, for fear that her article might be distributed in prison. “We don’t want inmates to say `Oh, here comes one of those,'” he confides. Less secretive are the two cheery men who convert recycled shipping containers into temporary jail cells. They also build housing for oilrigs, one of them helpfully explains. It’s all part of the exhibition at the American Correctional Association’s winter Conference on Corrections, the industry’s biggest trade show, held this year at the Henry B. Gonzalez Center in downtown San Antonio in midJanuary. In addition to prison and jail administrators, the ACA draws its membership from rehab and treatment facilities, boot camps, Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers, and community supervision programs, as well as attorneys, judges, and prisoner advocates. Founded in the late 1800s by a group of reform-minded prison wardens, the ACA presents itself as a forum for its members to discuss the current issues in the field. The association publishes a magazine, Corrections Today, with themed issues focusing on juvenile offenders, women in prison, community corrections and more. In addition, the ACA develops standards for and adopts positions on prisonrelated legislation and legal questions. Prisoner advocates, however, charge that the ACA is not a wholly benign entity. In recent years, says Meredith Rountree, head of the ACLU’s Prison/ Jail Accountability Project, the ACA has been increasingly dominated by one partiCular sector of its membership private, for-profit companies that contract with prisons, or in some cases even operate prisons themselves.These companies, which include household names like Pillsbury and Southwestern Bell, contribute millions of dollars in fees and tax-deductible donations to the ACA. They view the association as a way to wedge themselves into new markets and improve their bottom line. It’s a symptom, advocates say, of the nation’s heavy ‘investment in prison construction over the last two decades, and the seemingly permanent increase in spending that comes with keeping those new units filled. Across the country, legislators have made corrections the new public trough, and the usual suspects are lining up to feed. Although the schedule lists a track of unspecified business meetings, insiders say the actual policy work of the association happens at the ACA’s summer conference. The winter get-together is mostly a trade show, a chance for members to get out of the snow and talk shop on the company dollar. As trade shows go, this is one of the weirder ones, especially for those unfamiliar with the culture of corrections. The keynote speaker on Monday was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who warmed up the crowd of prison officials and contractors with a few jokes at his own expense. “I was almost one of your guests,” he cracked, before delivering a speech on, of all things, military recruitment. North, who has no experience in corrections, has become a mainstay of the right-wing talk radio circuit. He received a standing ovation for his call for universal mandatory conscription. Back downstairs, a two-man marching band played “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Semper. Fi” as exhibitors handed out trademarked shoulder bags, keychains, and other gimmicks. DuPont handed out eyeglass straps made of bulletproof Kevlar to promote their corrections-grade body armor. The mood among the purveyors at the dozens of booths and displays was optimistic. And why not? From 1980 to 2002, harsh sentencing laws, particularly for drug crimes, and reduced parole rates have caused the incarcerated population of the United States to quadruple to over two million, the highest per capita rate of any country at any time in history. Keeping those facilities supplied with everything from toothpaste to Tasers has become a $40 billion annual industry “Think of a prison as a city,” said Wayne Barte of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commerthat also rents a booth at the convention. “You provide the things people in a city Would needa post office, hospital, dental care, police, a fire department,” he said. “You need to feed, clothe, and do laundry.” At the convention, corrections officials can order “floss loops,” dental aides that can’t be usedas dental floss canas an impromptu cable saw, as well as short, softened toothbrushes that can’t be fused with razor blades to make deadly shanks. One trend apparent at the exhi 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/15/02