The business of law and order

The author of "Going up the River" says that the booming private-prison industry is due for a bust.

Published March 29, 2001 9:30PM (EST)

Joseph Hallinan did his time and wants to tell you about it. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist spent four years visiting prisons all over the country, and his book -- "Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation" -- documents a disturbing shift: Americans no longer view prisons as unwanted necessities. Now that punishment has merged with profit, we build prisons not out of need but out of want.

"The military-industrial complex has given way to a prison-industrial complex," he writes. "Like military bases, prisons provide jobs while simultaneously providing a sense of security -- in their case not from communists but from criminals."

Hallinan is bothered by America's indifference to the mandatory-sentencing laws that created a steady flow of prisoners, the abandonment of rehabilitation and the corporate exploitation of criminals, most of whom are African-American. But he's more storyteller than advocate. His book reads like the diary of an outsider trying to understand why the richest country in the world has turned law and order into a business.

These days, Hallinan covers manufacturing for the Wall Street Journal. But in a conversation about "Going up the River," he explains why prisons have become attractive moneymakers, waxes soulfully on how to turn the system around and describes why the prison boom might soon bust.

Your book is filled with bizarre images: the guard armed with a cellphone and not a gun, a psychiatrist counseling an inmate through the single slit in his cell's door, prison lights bright enough to obscure the stars for miles around. What is the most distressing observation you made about American prisons?

It's the injection into the correction system of motives that have very little to do with corrections -- profit, for one. An analogous situation is what you're seeing in schools right now, where Coke is introducing Coke machines and encouraging educators to push Coke on the students by splitting profits with the school. There's been a backlash there because people say, "Hey, if a principal is busy trying to sell Cokes to kids, he's not busy educating the kids, and that detracts from the purpose of the school."

It's the same way with the prisons. You introduce a profit motive into prisons and pretty soon people's attention gets focused on the profits and not on the inmates and the business at hand. That, to me, is the big switch. For 150 years we tried -- sometimes with little success -- to build institutions that actually corrected people. But in the early '80s we pretty much abandoned that.

When and why did the industry move from a rehabilitation motive to a profit motive?

The No. 1 reason would clearly be economics. In a lot of small towns in America in the early '80s, many factories started moving offshore. A little later, you had military bases start to close down. In certain parts of the country -- Texas in particular -- you had the combination of an oil bust and the savings and loan bust. All of these factors combined to make small towns very desperate for jobs.

At the same time an [anti-rehabilitation] backlash was going on throughout the country. It began in the early '70s with the riot at Attica. People were fed up with so-called liberal prisons, where inmates had "all the rights" -- a phrase that's often used. So you saw after Attica a backlash against these prisons. In the mid-'70s, for example, Ronald Reagan started calling for what would become the first "supermax" prisons.

And then came the big drug war movement, of course, and that began in the early '80s. In 1984, in particular, the federal government did away with parole, replacing it with federal sentencing guidelines. That ensured a steady flow of inmates into the prisons.

Is there anything inherently wrong with bringing a profit motive into the prison industry? Couldn't you argue that the injection of competition and profit creates greater efficiency and attracts higher-caliber guards, making for a better prison?

That would be the theory, but I haven't seen any evidence that it works out that way. The private prison companies have yet to conclusively demonstrate that their prisons are cheaper than publicly operated ones. They may point to one that says "yes," but there's another offsetting study that says "no."

In your book, you cite a study finding that the average time served for drugs is about 11 years, while for murder it's only six. How did this happen? Are we punishing drug dealers too harshly, or are we not punishing murderers harshly enough?

It's interesting. Unlike, say, murder, which has always been around and been a crime since biblical days, crack hasn't been around [that long]. In the early '80s, you had an odd confluence of political support for [tough penalties for drug criminals]. You had conservative Republicans on one side -- the Ronald Reagans. Then you also had the political left -- the Jesse Jacksons of the world, who saw what drugs were doing to the black community. And they kind of merged. They pushed a message that drugs were horrible and destroying not just America but the black community in America. This was the equivalent of public enemy No. 1. Something needed to be done, and the only way they could think to take care of it was to come up with unprecedentedly strict laws.

In 1996, Gallup took a poll and found that 80 percent of Americans supported life imprisonment for drug dealers. It's astonishing, really astonishing -- a tremendous hardening of attitudes toward drug crime. Eighty percent is whopping. Even the death penalty doesn't get support that high.

Steven Soderbergh's film "Traffic" caught the public and political eye; DARE is being abandoned. Are attitudes changing?

I really think we're at a turning point. The New York Times recently had an editorial talking about efforts in New York to soften the Rockefeller-era drug laws that were responsible for so much of the prison population increase. Although there are different versions of the law, there is support for softening, both from Gov. [George] Pataki and from the legislative leadership. I think that's a bellwether. I also think you're beginning to see a bit of rebellion against the mandatory-sentencing laws, those that deal both with drugs and with other crimes. Take Lionel Tate, the 14-year-old boy in Florida who just got the mandatory sentence [for murdering a 6-year-old girl when he was 12]. I think people are beginning to see the downside of these extremely harsh laws as well as the cost.

Your book focuses on the people who have a vested interest in the status quo, powerful people like Ed Meese, who became a lobbyist for the prison industry after leaving his post as Reagan's attorney general from 1985 to 1988.

I don't know if Ed Meese profited by holding stock in companies, but he certainly did encourage the buildup of the prison population and then, after he left office, encourage the tapping of that population for the private gain of companies.

Others have done the same thing. Michael Quindlan, for example, the former head of the Bureau of Prisons, left and joined CCA [Corrections Corporation of America, a publicly traded company that builds prisons]. A number of lesser-known people have followed in their tracks.

But actually, the more lucrative end is the less obvious end, which is the companies that sell to prisons. Companies like AT&T, Procter & Gamble -- their fingerprints aren't directly on prisons, yet they make enormous amounts of money from prisons.

The prison industry boomed at one point. How's it doing now?

It's just like the dot-coms, almost identical. You can throw up a stock chart of CCA and, and the drop-off is startlingly similar. It's really quite amazing.

Is that just a coincidence?

I think it's a coincidence, an odd confluence in American culture where you had tremendous technological innovation and optimism combined with a certain mercenary influence in the prison system.

Were the prisons also victims of irrational exuberance? Did they expand too quickly, just as dot-coms did?

I wouldn't say [states] overbuilt. There are [at least] 18 states where the prison population exceeds the capacity of the prisons. But you're beginning to see states -- Indiana, for instance -- considering mothballing some prisons they've built. Even though they may not have enough space for their inmates, they're running out of money to run their prisons.

If we consider overbuilding in that context, then you're beginning to see people pulling back. They're saying, "Gosh, we built an awful lot of prisons and we still don't have enough room for all our inmates, but the cost of this is killing us. As the economy goes down and tax revenues go down, we need to find someplace to cut.

You describe one prison where new technologies allowed guards to have almost no interaction with prisoners but required the hiring of more personnel to operate. What ultimately carries more weight -- the urge to punish or the need for profit?

I'm not sure one always trumps the other. But as long as the economic times were good, people didn't much care. They didn't care about how expensive the punishment was: They were willing to dole it out. For the last 10 years, you had unparalleled good economic times, so no one looked at the bill for being tough on crime. [Punishment and profit] worked hand in hand. Now, it's really going to be interesting to see to what extent they diverge.

Is the prison industry recession-proof?

It has traditionally been recession-proof, until recently when it became an industry. There's an extra little turn of the screw for the private industry. If prison populations begin to peak, and I think they are -- New York state is seeing its first drop in 27 years -- then you're going to see Department of Corrections administrators cutting contracts with the private companies. You're going to see private prison companies hurting worse than they are now.

But what happens when prisons go out of business?

Great question. There's been some concern in several states, Wisconsin being one, where legislators have raised that kind of question. CCA's stock bottomed out at about 18 cents a share, which is just about as close as you can get to falling off the board without doing it. And these guys have inmates. If they go out of business, what happens? Do they just open the door and send the inmates home? Do we need to make contingency plans?

A number of states are beginning to ask these questions.

Sounds scary.

It is scary.

How important is religion in rehabilitation?

I honestly believe -- and I've thought about this long and hard -- nothing works 100 percent of the time, or even most of the time. But if someone is really truly going to be reformed, and that's rare, I would think that it'd be almost impossible to achieve that without some religious sense, with a lowercase "r." It's almost impossible for a guy to fess up for what he's done, to make amends and to try to set his life right, without some deep inner conversion of some kind.

I remember talking with Andre Flowers, who was serving a sentence for killing someone in the Washington state reformatory. He was roughly analogous to the prison minister; he preached to other inmates. I don't know whether his conversion was sincere; that's hard to judge. But listening to him talk about crying in his cell, I realized that the modern reformatory achieved what the old-fashioned [Pennsylvania Quakers'] Eastern State Penitentiary had been designed to do -- give a guy time alone to think about what he'd done and to have some form of penitence.

So first a criminal needs to have a deep-seated change. But your book implies that society also has a role -- in giving inmates an incentive, like work.

That seems to be the one, two punch. No program is perfect and I don't think that it would work often, but it seems to work more often than anything else. It's God, work and family: If you take those away from most people in the free world, I don't think they'd say they have much to live for. And the same probably applies to inmates.

What about the conflicts inherent in prison labor: Work is a tool for rehabilitation but also exploitation. How can the courts, legislatures or prisons themselves ensure that a balance is struck between these competing forces? What are the best models of prison labor and why?

One of the best models is Iowa. True, you can exploit inmates; that happened in the South after the Civil War. But the Iowa model seems to provide protections. Employers that employ inmates, for instance, are required to offer qualified inmates jobs after they get out of prison. Inmates must also be paid market wages. I suppose, as with so many programs, it comes down to the intentions of the people who run them. In Iowa, they genuinely seem to want to help inmates, and as naive as that sounds, it makes a difference. Goodwill can almost never be mandated.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Damien Cave

Related Topics ------------------------------------------