"Psycho factories" and "The business of law and order"

Readers respond to our review of "Going up the River" and interview with the book's author, Joseph Hallinan.

By Salon Staff
Published April 3, 2001 2:30AM (EDT)

Read Maria Russo's review of "Going up the River."

Maria Russo's review is generally on the mark except when she states that private prisons justify themselves by shaving a few dollars off the cost of operating public prisons. Such is not the case. This is a sensitive topic that, oddly, has not been researched as definitively as it deserves. What data is available, however, indicates there is little or no saving in private prisons. Tennessee, home state of Corrections Corporation of America, has experience with private prisons. The prisons may even cost more to operate and have worse results with prisoners.

Why do we continue to build them? Because very powerful politicians are on their boards and have stock options. That is the rationale pure and simple. Private subcontracts with these prisons are also immensely profitable for the politically well connected. Our prison system is a disaster and needs to be completely overhauled, along with our ridiculous drug laws.

-- Carl Wright

Maria Russo's coverage of "Going up the River" presents some of us with the same old information we've known for years. Criminologists and criminal justice scholars have long discussed the perils of prisons, the horrifying treatment of inmates in both public and private prisons and the frightening reality of the prison-industrial complex. As a professor of law and justice studies, I know any student in any college-level criminal justice program has been exposed to this information for years (decades, actually).

I am dismayed by the fact that academics are continually dismissed while journalists are routinely considered "experts in the field." Criminologists have been talking about these issues forever; only when a journalist writes a book or an article is the information suddenly considered newsworthy. Perhaps someone should talk to those of us who spend our lives studying and conducting research on these topics. We could have told you all of this information years ago.

-- Cynthia L. Line

As the founder of the organization In Our Name, which is in part dedicated to the notion that prison abuses by guards, tier officers and wardens should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity, I was appalled at Russo's "review" of Hallinan's book. Most egregious was her suggestion that one guard described in the book, Jennifer Miller, with her "boundless hatred of men," was somehow an ideal person for the job of guarding male prisoners. Really? And I suppose male rapists would make ideal candidates for women's prisons, right?

Worse still was her tacit endorsement of Ted Conover's whitewash, "Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing." The book is riddled with inaccuracies, sophistry, subjective unreasoning and just plain B.S. For example, Conover claims that most prison sex is consensual, which is a statement so outrageously false that it beggars the imagination. One need only visit the Web site for the organization Stop Prisoner Rape to learn that.

-- Rob Anderson

Americans have always liked the easy answer, the quick fix, instead of going to the root of the problem. We really don't want to know or to deal with the causes of crime: poverty, childhood abuse and neglect, societal attitudes that encourage aggressiveness in males.

If Americans were truly concerned about crime we would devote some portion of our prison budgets to investments in poor neighborhoods. We might encourage idealistic young people to go into social work and then lower their caseloads and pay them a decent salary to help protect children. But that's the bleeding-heart-liberal approach to complicated social problems. It feels much better to be a tough, no-nonsense Republican, with punishment the answer to everything.

-- Dennis Hodges

I am a commercial contractor highly involved with the construction and renovation of prisons, and I think your review of this particular piece was hypocritical, immature and uninformed. You admitted being manipulated and indeed you were.

Share a lonely elevator with one of the rehabilitated? No, never. Not one of them. They could spend seven years at Disney World and you still wouldn't. Did you ever imagine the logistics of buying property and building prisons in a city environment? Look into the cost differential. Who will work there? Who is going to be a prison guard and qualify to be a prison guard? I will tell you who: the noncriminal who lives upstate in some poor community with little opportunity. The same damn place they should build the prison!

Prisons are good and criminals are bad. There are so many variables involved with this scenario -- so why don't we lock up the bad for as long as possible while we figure it all out.

-- Steven Durrant

I believe that the "supermax" prisons you describe are the future, and that they offer a tremendous opportunity to improve our penal system. First of all, were I sent to prison, I would definitely prefer spending my time in solitary environment than constantly worrying about being raped, attacked or killed by more physically powerful inmates -- which I understand is the reality in most prisons. Second, any problems regarding drug abuse are eliminated (provided guards aren't smuggling them in). Finally, using a combination of networked computers, educational software and behavioral shaping, inmates can be educated and trained in a virtually limitless number of areas via computer-based learning, and they can be rewarded for completing assignments (or have computer privileges revoked for failure to do so). In short, these modern prisons offer the first viable opportunity to make prisons nonviolent, nonexploitative, drug-free and even rehabilitative. Whether these opportunities are actually realized is, of course, the real question.

-- Jason

Maria Russo's cover article, "Psycho Factories," misuses the word "psycho." "Psycho" is short for "psychotic," a word that describes people who hallucinate or are delusional -- some of the mentally ill.

I don't know which is more offensive: Russo's racism in implying that the largely black prison population is mentally ill, or her victim-blaming denigration of the mentally ill by implying that they deserve to be in prison. Persons with schizophrenia are, in fact, on average less violent than the general population.

I'm sure Russo didn't mean to even mention mental illness in her article. But she did, in her title and her quotes. She is crushing the mentally ill with her pen and should be more careful.

-- Ted Helm

I read and enjoyed your prison story. But I have problems with some of the terminology. You used the term "Black Muslim."

"Black Muslim" is an offensive phrase. And it is not the first time I have seen it on your Web site. Muslims come in different colors and races. Why do you feel it necessary to single out Muslims who are African-American? If you were referring to an African-American who is a member of the Nation of Islam, please say so instead of Black Muslim. If you were referring to a Sunni Muslim who happens to be black, please say so. The way you used the term "Black Muslim" is as if black people are not supposed to be Muslim. Please refrain from using it -- it doesn't matter what the AP Stylebook says; it is offensive.

I am a journalist who happens to be black, female and a Christian.

-- Richelle Turner Collins

Read Damien Cave's interview with "Going up the River" author Joseph Hallinan.

I look forward to reading the Hallinan book. Many of his observations echo my experiences. He does recognize some of the most important patterns in current U.S. penology.

However, Hallinan makes a huge mistake in failing to recognize that public prisons also have a "profit" motive that can cost taxpayers more than private prisons. (See Frank Zimring's 2001 book from OUP for an analysis of how the California prison guard union helped implement the infamous "3 Strikes" program, thereby assuring continued growth for their union and the public prison market sector.) Hallinan also -- in the interview -- misstates the data on private vs. public prison costs, and ignores the data on private vs public efficacy.

Having worked as everything from a guard to a transportation officer to a caseworker to a dining room manager to a visitor to an expert witness in a number of state prisons, I think there is something missing in the debate. Hallanan -- as do many others -- appears to ignore how often state corrections departments become the employer of first resort for politically well connected. In one of the states where I worked, five of us were constantly asked to do the work of the sixth member of the team. (Our moms didn't know the governor.)

I hope that when I find the book it will deliver a much more nuanced and accurate picture of prisons.

-- Tom Durkin

Salon Staff

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