Psycho factories

Nonviolent criminals go in and sadistic thugs come out, but with military spending down, America's small towns are hooked on prisons.

By Maria Russo
March 30, 2001 3:47AM (UTC)
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"Going up the River" has a central idea so intuitively convincing, you wonder how it ever escaped our attention: In the aftermath of the Cold War, Americans have replaced military spending with spending on new, high-tech, ever-more-punishing prisons. Prisons are now seen primarily as sources of jobs and revenue, rather than as places for rehabilitating criminals. Those who run prisons have abandoned penal theory -- that troublesome business of figuring out what best helps inmates, most of whom will eventually return to the outside world, clean up their acts. Programs for inmate education and counseling have been steadily disappearing. We no longer want to reform criminals; we simply want to punish them -- and, not incidentally, to make as much money as we can off of them in the process.

Across the country, this shift in strategy has saved a few economically desolate rural towns that have become homes to the new prisons. It has also lined the pockets of corporate giants such as AT&T, which controls the lucrative pay phones in prisons. (Inmates now spend an estimated $1 billion a year on long-distance phone calls.) And it has made millionaires out of many savvy, and quite a few plainly unscrupulous, wardens who have jumped ship from public prisons to new private ones, where they can cash in on stock options and take home free-market salaries and huge "consulting fees." These corporate ventures, with names such as CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, often build prisons on spec, then rent their cells to state systems at bargain prices, snipping a few dollars a month off the cost of keeping an inmate at a public prison.

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Just as the prison boom has kicked in, the national crime rate has dropped. Yet we've continued to build new prisons -- because we like them, not because we need them, argues Joseph T. Hallinan, author of "Going up the River." It's a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, he says. To do this, we've had to persuade ourselves to believe about crime "what Americans had believed about communism in the 1950s: that its threat lurked everywhere at all times, and could be stemmed only by the creation of a vast military-industrial complex -- only now it was a prison-industrial complex."

There are, of course, other factors at play in the prison boom: The crime rate may have fallen steadily in the last decade, but the length of the average prison sentence has gone up. Hallinan, a journalist who has been writing about the criminal justice system for almost a decade, shows how the rise of mandatory-sentencing laws, in particular those for drug offenses, took discretion away from experienced judges, eliminated mercy and stuffed prisons with nonviolent offenders serving long terms with no possibility of parole. In 1995, the average prison term served for homicide was six years; for selling crack cocaine, it was 11.

Life behind bars, meanwhile, has become all the more degraded, Hallinan reports. In some maximum-security units, inmates regularly pelt guards with feces, urine and food; the guards wear safety glasses. In several state systems, such as Illinois', well-organized gangs effectively run prisoners' daily lives, terrorizing and raping the weak, even controlling cell and work detail assignments, all the while overseeing the drug traffic back home from their phones while guards look the other way.

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In part thanks to those mandatory drug-sentencing laws that treat crimes involving crack cocaine much more harshly than those involving standard-issue cocaine or other drugs, inmate populations are disproportionately black. But new prisons are almost always built in white, rural areas, far from inmates' homes. Politicians claim this is because these areas suffer from high unemployment, but as Hallinan points out, the nation's inner cities aren't exactly hotbeds of employment opportunity, either. While studies have shown that regular contact with family and close friends in the outside world is a key to prisoner rehabilitation, most inmates are now housed across entire states from their homes, in places with little opportunity for job programs or other community involvement as their sentences near completion.

Hallinan shows how racial tension between white guards and nonwhite inmates is almost inevitable; the symbolism alone is enough to drive up the stakes in the slightest confrontation between the two sides. In Texas, armed white guards patrol on horseback while the mostly black and Chicano inmates do field work, singing work songs passed down from the days of slavery.

The problem is that while building new prisons near the areas that most inmates come from makes a certain kind of rational sense, it doesn't make emotional sense at a time when the public wants to see criminals punished, not just locked up. The result, Hallinan writes, is that regardless of the severity of the average prisoner's crime, his time behind bars has become "pointlessly punitive." Being far from home and not likely to receive visits has become just another psychic dimension of the punishment that the public demands.

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Humiliations large and small are thought up for prisoners: In some Alabama prisons, an inmate caught masturbating is made to wear a pink uniform. It's as if prisons have become a stage on which to play out our lust for vengeance and our rage about the toll that violent crime has taken on our national psyche. Florida, for example, recently debated a bill to require its prisons to be "no-frills" -- no TVs, no weights, even no air conditioning. "Our objective is to make prison life intolerable," as one supporter summed it up.

But as Hallinan shows again and again, brutal, dangerous prisons that give their prisoners nothing meaningful to occupy their time produce brutal and dangerous inmates. What happens, then, when these prisoners return to the outside world? Today's prisons, "Going up the River" suggests, regularly turn garden-variety, low-level criminals into violent, sociopathic thugs who are much more dangerous when they come out than when they went in. Higher education for inmates is "on the verge of extinction." Many prison units become sick, self-enclosed dystopias. "You can't create and maintain a climate where people want to change," as one former corrrections commissioner puts it, "where every day when they open their cell door ... they're preoccupied with their survival that day."

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Rehabilitation, though, appears to be the furthest thing from the minds of prison officials dealing with extreme discipline problems. Restoring order and taking the system back from the gangs are the first priority of the prison officials Hallinan quotes, and the solution most have embraced is the new breed of "supermax" prisons, the "handful of ultramodern, ultraexpensive, increasingly popular prisons designed to deprive the men in them of human interaction."

Illinois, for example, sees its new supermax as the only way to break the stranglehold of gangs on prison life; 80 percent of its supermax prisoners are gang leaders. Supermax inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in windowless cells, with an hour of daily exercise in a caged-in yard. Most are allowed either no phone calls or one 15-minute call a month, with no cafeteria visits, no library privileges and only an occasional, brief "noncontact" visit. These supermaxes are, in short, "incubators for psychoses," in one psychologist's phrase, yet many of the prisoners here are eventually returned to the general prison population.

But like all new prisons these days, supermaxes have been greeted with universal excitement -- they are, after all, a boost to any local economy. If the notion that we've put a smiley face on prisons sounds far-fetched, consider Polk County, Texas, where, Hallinan reports, a new prison was greeted with great cheers. Three days before the prison's opening, the prison held an "open house." For $25, members of the public got to eat real prison food, wear real prison clothes, even spend the night in a real prison cell. The town's mayor strummed a guitar from a bunk in one cell, and a judge sang appropriate favorites such as "Folsom Prison Blues." Or consider Wallens Ridge, Va., where the new supermax was celebrated with a party complete with yellow and white tent and barbecue pit. The warden told the crowd how proud he was of his town's new prison, which "shows we can make a difference. We can create jobs and prosperity and protect people while we're doing it."

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It has never been easy to keep order in prisons, which are, after all, filled with people who have shown themselves capable of antisocial behavior and much worse, many of whom have little left to lose. How many resources does society really want to invest in them, and just what are prisoners' rights beyond food and shelter? Hallinan shows how over the past few decades, pendulum swings in the nation's courts on these age-old issues have played a crucial part in the development of the prison-industrial complex.

Prior to the '60s, wardens ruled individual prisons virtually at their own discretion; courts rarely intervened. But the Black Muslims succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to pay attention to prison life with its ruling that Muslim inmates must be given the same religious accommodations as Christians. A frenzy of inmate lawsuits followed. Suddenly, inhumane conditions that had always been a feature of many prisons -- such as severely overcrowded Alabama jails in which six inmates were crammed into a cell measuring 4 by 8 feet, with only a hole in the floor for a toilet -- were ruled unconstitutional.

The next decade saw the courts ban corporal punishment in prisons and set limits on solitary confinement. Rules were eased on everything from inmates' dress codes to the number and duration of visits to the censorship of their mail. Prison counseling programs flourished. Furlough and early-parole programs were begun in several states.

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But after the move toward "empowered" prisoners came something else: a surge of deadly prisoner uprisings, beginning in 1971 at Attica in upstate New York, in which 43 people were killed. The national mood shifted again, away from sympathy toward prisoners' concerns, away from the concept of rehabilitation, and toward the idea that prisons exist to be the hell on earth that criminals deserve -- and God knows we need more and more of 'em in these corrupt, immoral times.

It's the unseemliness of it all, of the newly acceptable blithe, cheerful attitude toward prisons, and of the new opportunities to make millions off the misfortunes of others and the most entrenched social problems, that most seems to offend Hallinan. And yet that's also what sets him at cross-purposes in "Going Up the River." His instincts as a moralist compete with his talent for drawing amusing portraits of wacky personalities. He lavishes several hilarious pages, for example, on San Quentin's Dr. Leo Stanley, who served as the prison's warden in the 1930s and believed that crime could be caused by the psychological pain of being physically unattractive. Stanley started by giving nose jobs to all crooked-nosed inmates, but before long, Hallinan writes, "He was giving inmates face lifts to smooth their wrinkles, paring down and pinning back elephant ears, even removing blemishes."

Comic relief is a good idea when it comes to a potentially depressing topic like prisons, but at times Hallinan gets carried away. Some of his portraits, both of prisoners and of prison workers, come close to cruel condescension. There's something a bit slimy about his "sympathetic" Tobacco Road-esque profile of the hapless, toothless Groves family of North Carolina, three entire generations of whom are now in jail for running a crack-selling operation out of the matriarch's trailer. (Hallinan patiently details how each of the none-too-swift family members realized they were being busted, complete with colorful exclamations such as "They done got Mama!"). I felt equally manipulated by his subtle ridicule of a tightly wound Virginia prison guard named Jennifer Miller (known among the inmates as "Killer Miller").

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"I loved it from the moment I walked in," she says, beaming. "I loved the sound of those doors clanging behind me. It was like a big adventure." When she was a girl, her father would take her for a ride on the back of his Harley-Davidson. The faster he would go, the more she liked it. Prison, she said, is a little bit like that.

Is Hallinan's point that it's wrong to love your work as a prison guard? Here's a job that Miller enjoys, one that allows her to utilize her seemingly boundless anger toward men and her need for both control and adventure. We may have too many prisons in this country, and we may be building new prisons like the one she works in for all the wrong reasons, but if someone has to be a prison guard, she is an excellent candidate.

Still, "Going up the River" is a good, well-researched trip through our national prison culture. What it needed to be a great book was a little more analytical steam, and less reportorial whistling. He might have contended, for example, with the many conservative counter-arguments to his thesis, such as the idea that the crime rate is down precisely because we've locked up more of the bad people, and given them longer sentences. While he's devoting pages to describing the weirdo characters and tragic lost souls he meets in his travels through prisons, or recounting some of the alternately kooky and horrifying decisions that are made by the people who run individual prisons, Hallinan lets pass with too little reflection some truly knotty larger conflicts. These include problems such as how to keep prisoners occupied and help them develop job skills while not exploiting prison labor, and the moral question of how we can know whether a coldblooded killer is "rehabilitated." He seems only minimally interested in the fact that, for the most part, the guards who might seem to be among the main beneficiaries of the prison boom themselves live with economic and psychological struggles that parallel in eerie ways those of the prisoners they guard.

This is the dark territory that Ted Conover explored in his 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book, "Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing." Conover went undercover to work as a guard at the New York state maximum-security prison. The two books strike quite different moods, though they convey many of the same ideas and conclusions. Take your pick: Where Hallinan delivers his devastating verdict on prisons with an amusing dose of quirky Americana, Conover gives readers gritty realism, psychological probing, a total immersion experience. Eric Schlosser, author of the exposé "Fast Food Nation," has his own book about the subject in the works. With some of our best, most serious-minded writers turning their attention to prisons, those of us who haven't yet acknowledged the full implications of the prison boom won't be able to ignore it for much longer.


Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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