From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

April 2002

Corrections, Inc

by John Biewen

On the Internet at:

Corporate Sponsored Crime Laws

Over the past two decades, America's prison population doubled, then doubled again, before finally leveling off at about two million inmates. One result: a $50-billion corrections industry. That's bigger than tobacco. The crackdown on crime has enriched corporations that build prisons or sell products to them, prison guard unions, and police departments that use budget-fattening incentives to pursue drug criminals. In this special report, American RadioWorks correspondent John Biewen explores how some groups with vested interests work to influence public policy— helping to keep more people locked up longer.

Prison Industry a Revenue-Generating Opportunity

The annual trade show sponsored by the American Correctional Association is like other big trade shows: a sprawling bazaar of colorful display booths. This one fills a huge hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. It brings together shoppers — mostly prison administrators — and hundreds of vendors hawking their wares.

You can find plenty of companies selling the basics, of course: prison design and construction; fence and razor wire; uniforms as well as RIT dye to color-code those uniforms and a system for stamping them with numbers and bar codes; handcuffs; surveillance equipment; janitor services; steel doors and powerful locks and the electronic control rooms from which to operate them.

The major phone companies are here — Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and the Bells and former Bells — vying to provide collect-call service to inmates' families. Dupont shows off a new lightweight, Kevlar protective vest just for prison guards. It won't stop a bullet but it will protect against inmates attempting to "stab and slash" the officer, explains Dupont's Gary Burnett. Of the 450,000 guards in the nation's prisons and jails, "only about fifteen-percent of them are now protected, so the goal is to get protection on as many as possible," Burnett says.

Then there's the eye-catching B.O.S.S. chair. With its wires and straight back and gray finish it looks electric. But it's not what you think. It's the Body Orifice Security Scanner, a device designed to detect metal contraband hidden inside the body.

"We're looking for handcuffs, keys, razor blades, small shanks, etcetera. Basically the person sits down in the chair; if they have any metal contraband hidden in the vaginal or anal cavity," the chair's display panel lights up and beeps, explains David Turner of Ranger Security Technologies.

You can get a B.O.S.S. chair for $5,000.

On its Web site, the American Correctional Association points to the $50 billion spent each year to run the nation's prisons and jails. And it warns companies, "Don't miss out on this prime revenue-generating opportunity."

Is the Prison Industry Self-Serving?

Think of it. Two million prisoners eat six million meals a day. Here to help meet that need is Jim Carroll of Canteen Correctional Services. "We provide food services and commissary services to correctional facilities nationwide."

Inmates get sick. Another corporation, the St. Louis-based Correctional Medical Services, is the leading provider of "comprehensive medical care in jails and prisons on a contract basis," explains company representative Jim Chaney.

Prisoners exercise and kill time in the game room. "We sell a lot of sporting games, board games, puzzles, table games to prison facilities," says Brian Wexler, Vice President of Sales and Marketing with Quality Table Games.

Some people point to all this money being made on prisons and wonder: Is the industry serving the needs of inmates, or is it the other way around?

Outside the convention center in Philadelphia, a few hundred people block traffic for a peaceful march through Center City. These protesters say a powerful web of private and public interests — the prison-industrial complex — perpetuates the war on crime for money.

"No more prisons! No more prisons!" they chant. A young woman shouts through a scratchy megaphone: "We are no longer asking. We are demanding! No more making money off of the flesh of other human beings!"

Some conventioneers with the Correctional Association seem bemused at the notion that they're causing people to get locked up.

"I think it's Halloween in Philadelphia, man," says conventioneer Ray Zaroufie as he waits to cross the street outside the convention center and watches chanting protesters dressed in striped inmate costumes.

Zaroufie works for a Tennessee-based company that supplies prison commissaries. "Do prisoners got to eat?" he asks. "Do they got to shave? I mean, somebody's got to sell that to the state to put in those jails and the prisons, right?"

Zaroufie has a point. Just because people make a profit from prisons, that doesn't mean there's a corrections lobby that works to drive up the inmate population. Certainly other forces have helped to do that. Crime soared in the 1970s and '80s. The news media devoted headlines and the tops of newscasts to the crack epidemic and gang warfare. Many Americans were alarmed. Politicians from both major parties seized the issue and held on tight. For two decades, a political consensus prevailed: the nation needed tougher sentences, more police, more prisons.

Sure, when it snowed prison-related contracts, businesses flocked to grab them. But do corporations also try to boost demand for their services? To some activists concerned about a "prison-industrial complex," the American Legislative Exchange Council presents a striking case in point.

Corporate-Sponsored Legislation

The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC for short — is not well known to the general public and doesn't try to be. But the organization, founded in the early 1970s, boasts of helping to pass hundreds of state laws every year: From tax cuts to loosened environmental regulations to longer prison sentences.

"As you know, ALEC plays a vital if understated role in shaping our national agenda," Tennessee State Representative Steve McDaniel told a luncheon audience of a thousand at ALEC's annual meeting last summer at the Marriott Marquis in New York City's Times Square. "We are the unsung heroes of American public policy."

More than a third of the nation's state lawmakers — 2400 of them — are members of ALEC. Most are Republicans and conservative Democrats. ALEC says its mission is to promote free markets, small government, states' rights, and privatization. Members gather at ALEC meetings to swap ideas and form "model legislation." Legislators then take those "model" bills home and try to make them state law.

In a luncheon speech to the group, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson—now the Bush administration's health and human services secretary—fondly remembers his days as a state rep and an early ALEC member in the 1970s.

"Myself, I always loved going to these meetings because I always found new ideas. Then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that 'It's mine.'"

In forming and spreading its ideas, ALEC gets help from corporate leaders. More than a hundred companies co-sponsor ALEC conferences — including Turner, a construction giant and the nation's number one builder of prisons; and Wackenhut Corrections, a private prison corporation.

Another 200 companies and interest groups join ALEC as "private-sector members." They pay dues for the privilege of helping to write ALEC's model bills.

The result is corporate-sponsored legislation, says Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "Bayer Corporation or Bell South or GTE or Merck pharmaceutical company sitting at a table with elected representatives, actually hammering out a piece of legislation — behind closed doors, I mean, this isn't open to the public. And that then becomes the basis on which representatives are going to their state legislatures and debating issues."

Tough-on-Crime Measures Increase Prison Population

ALEC's corporate members include at least a dozen companies that do prison business. Like Dupont; the drug companies, Merck and Glaxo Smith-Klein; and the telephone companies that compete for lucrative prison contracts. And Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). It dominates the private prison business — building and running prisons and renting cells to governments. At last count the company housed 55,000 inmates in 65 facilities in twenty-one states and Puerto Rico, says CCA Vice President Louise Green.

Neither CCA nor the American Legislative Exchange Council will say how much CCA pays for its ALEC membership. The latter group's corporate memberships go for $5,000 to $50,000 a year. Green says belonging to ALEC gives the corrections corporation a chance to explain the benefits of privately-run prisons to state lawmakers — "that if those states and counties have considerable overcrowding in their jails and prisons that partnering with a private corrections company can realize cost savings to their taxpayers and we can offer effective programming for their inmates."

But CCA does more than chat up lawmakers at ALEC meetings. On top of its membership dues and contributions to help pay the bills for ALEC meetings, the prison company pays two thousand dollars a year for a seat on ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force. That panel writes the group's "model" bills on crime and punishment. Until recently, a CCA official even co-chaired the task force. For years, ALEC's criminal justice committee has promoted state laws letting private prison companies operate. And at least since the early 1990s, it has pushed a tough-on-crime agenda.

ALEC officials say proudly that lawmakers on the group's crime task force led the drive for more incarceration in the states — "and really took the forefront in promoting those ideals and then taking them into their states and talking to their colleagues and getting their colleagues to understand that if, you know, we want to reduce crime we have to get these guys off the streets," says ALEC staffer and Criminal Justice Task Force director Andrew LeFevre.

Among ALEC's model bills: mandatory minimum sentences; Three Strikes laws, giving repeat offenders 25 years to life in prison; and "truth-in-sentencing," which requires inmates to serve most or all of their time without a chance for parole. ALEC didn't invent any of these ideas but has played a pivotal role in making them law in the states, says Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

"By ALEC's own admission in its 1995 Model Legislation Scorecard, they were very successful. They had introduced 199 bills [that year]. The Truth-in-Sentencing Act had become law in 25 states, so that right there is fairly significant."

By the late 1990s, about forty states had passed versions of truth-in sentencing similar to ALEC's model bill. Because of truth-in-sentencing and other tough sentencing measures, state prison populations grew by half a million inmates in the 1990s even while crime rates fell dramatically.

The result: more demand for private prison companies like CCA.

Truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, a group of lawmakers led passage of truth-in-sentencing in 1998.

"Many of us, myself included, were part of ALEC," says the bill's author, Republican state representative Scott Walker.

"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker recalls. "And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation."

But a former head of Wisconsin's prison system, Walter Dickey — now a University of Wisconsin Law Professor — says he finds it "shocking" that lawmakers would write sentencing policy with help from ALEC, a group that gets funding and, supposedly, expertise, from a private prison corporation.

"I don't know that they know anything about sentencing," Dickey says. "They know how to build prisons, presumably, since that's the business they're in. They don't know anything about probation and parole. They don't know about the development of alternatives. They don't know about how public safety might be created and defended in communities in this state and other states."

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections says the truth-in-sentencing law will add to the state's prison population in the years to come. A recent analysis by the state estimated that the 990 inmates imprisoned just in the first 21 months after the law took effect would spend 18,384 additional months in jail, costing taxpayers an extra $41 million.

That's money in the bank for Corrections Corporation of America, the company that sits on the committee that wrote ALEC's truth-in-sentencing bill. Wisconsin is a CCA customer. Its prisons are overcrowded, so the state houses more than three thousand inmates at CCA facilities in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. The price tag: more than 50 million dollars a year.

Representative Walker says he understood that CCA and some other ALEC contributors stood to profit from the truth-in-sentencing bill. He insists he took that into account before deciding to sponsor the measure.

"Oftentimes that's your greatest challenge, as a legislator, is trying to weed through what everybody's hidden agenda is, and figure out who's giving you credible information and in many cases playing one interest off of another to try and figure out what the truth is. More information to me is better," Walker says.

Still, Walker says that he and his fellow ALEC members relied on an ALEC report that credited Virginia's truth-in-sentencing law with a five-year drop in that state's crime rate. The trouble is, crime dropped in all states in the 1990s whether or not they passed laws like truth-in-sentencing. Experts struggle to understand why, but they generally give sentencing policies just a small fraction of the credit, says criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University and editor of the recent book, The Crime Drop in America. Other likely factors include economics, changing drug markets, demographics, and social change — that is, more young people catching on that drug use and trafficking are self-destructive.

Simple cause and effect equations like the one produced by ALEC — crediting truth-in-sentencing with a given state's dropping crime rate — are frequently used by advocates, not scientists, Blumstein says. "Whenever somebody with an interest in some aspect of the crime-fighting business is asked why crime has gone down or gone up, somehow they always are able to point to the issue they're most interested in as the cause of it."

The Place of Profit in Criminal Justice Policy

The Corrections Corporation of America booth, with its black and yellow logo, has a prominent place at the American Correctional Association trade show. CCA's Vice President of Customer Relations, James Ball, says CCA does not take an active role in writing or promoting ALEC's model sentencing bills.

"You don't see CCA advocating for longer sentences; that's not true. If government, through its elected representatives, identified that, well, we are going to need to provide for public safety by incarcerating individuals — that is not a vendor-driven issue," Ball says.

Asked if giving money and time to the American Legislative Exchange Council doesn't constitute support for tough sentencing policies, Ball says ALEC is just a research group and doesn't drive public policy. In fact, ALEC's stated mission is to drive public policy.

The former Wisconsin Corrections Administrator, Walter Dickey, says he paid close attention to the debate over truth-in-sentencing in Madison. "There was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement" in the crafting of the bill, Dickey says.

The public debate over criminal justice policy — how to make the streets safe, what it means for the punishment to fit the crime — is an especially profound one, Dickey argues, in which profit has no place.

"As I used to tell the troops when I worked in corrections, we lock the door, we deny people autonomy and freedom, the most cherished things in American life. I've always understood political people as having differences of opinion — tough on crime, soft on crime. But I've usually thought that whatever views were being held in that debate, they were sincerely arrived at. And to discover that there's a group pushing criminal justice policy not because it's in the public interes, but because it's a way to make money, is disappointing to me."

The Cops' Share

Over the last twenty years, drug offenders have been the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. The trend picked up speed during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when policymakers lengthened prison sentences for drug criminals and called for stepped-up enforcement efforts. They also handed police and sheriffs' departments a tangible incentive to focus on drugs. New laws allowed police to supplement their budgets using assets they seized in drug operations: cash, homes, cars, boats and airplanes. Some critics say this has created a conflict of interest, by giving police agencies a financial stake in the war on drugs.

Out on I-35

If you drive Interstate 35 through Osage County in the flint hills of southeastern Kansas, chances are you'll pass Sheriff's Deputy Wally Long.

"This is what I mainly do for eight hours a day," says the barrel-chested deputy as he steers his Crown Victoria cruiser down the left lane of the highway — so he can turn quickly in the grass median if necessary. "Just drive the highway and enforce the traffic code."

Long wears a baseball cap on his shaved head. From his well-equipped squad car he'll clock your speed, eye that little registration sticker on your license plate, and check for any swerving. Given any justification, he'll pull you over.

Near milepost 154 (it's actually in neighboring Coffey County, which Long patrols in addition to Osage as part of a multi-county Drug Task Force), he pulls over a brown Pontiac with Texas plates. Long wears a microphone and his exchange with the driver is audible over an intercom in his car.

"Running just a little bit fast there today," he tells the driver. "Checked you at eighty-five."

The driver will get a warning, not a ticket, because his car was in a cluster with other vehicles so Long wouldn't be able to prove in court that the radar hit on the Pontiac. Still, Long does a routine check. "Do you have your drivers license or your insurance with you?"

The driver is a 30-ish Hispanic man with an older woman — his mother visiting from Bolivia, he says.

"Is this your car?" Long asks.

"Yeah," says the driver.

"And where did you say you were going?"

"To Kansas?"

"Kansas City? What takes you up there?"

The young man's answers are specific: he names a man he and his mother are going a visit — an old friend from her days as an exchange student thirty years ago. The driver volunteers that he's a stockbroker with Fidelity Investments. "I live in Dallas. I'm a legal resident. I have my green card. I'm married with an American citizen so everything's in order."

"That's good," Long says.

Long keeps the man parked on the shoulder for more than twenty minutes. He runs checks on his driver's license and car, then probes one of the Pontiac's body panels that he says looks like it's been removed.

"Has anybody worked on your car, put a stereo in it or speakers or anything?" he asks the man. "No? Would it be OK if I take a quick look in here, take a quick search of the car looking for drugs, alcohol, guns?"

When the man hesitates, Long offers a choice: "You don't have to let me search, but if you allow me to search, I'm just going to take a few minutes and get you on down the road here. If you don't want me to search, I'm going to ask my partner to come up here with his dog. He can do an exterior sniff of the vehicle and we can get you out of here. It's up to you, whatever you want to do."

"The sooner we leave, the better," the driver says.

So Long searches the body panel but finds nothing. As he's doing so, the driver recalls that in fact the panel was removed not long ago when he had the car's rear seatbelts replaced. Long finally lets the man and his mother go.

But once or twice a month, Long says, he finds a good-sized shipment of drugs — or money. While working for another Kansas county a couple of years ago, he hit the jackpot when he stopped a speeder.

"He was really nervous. I asked him where he was coming from and he was almost unable to recall where he was coming from because he was trying to think up a lie. And he kept saying, 'Um, um, um….'"

Long searched the car and found a laptop computer bag stuffed with $400,000 in cash.

"He had no idea where the money came from. It was a rental vehicle and he thought that somebody must have left it in there that rented it before him. He signed a disclaimer and the money was forfeited."

The driver wasn't charged with a crime; there was no evidence against him besides the cash, Long says.

Most of the 40,000 asset seizures made by police every year go uncontested. Police consider that virtual proof they're taking drug money. When Long makes a seizure, the county sends a fraction of the proceeds to the state or federal government to cover paperwork. The local sheriff's department keeps what's left — 80 or 85-percent.

"I can tell you this," Long says when asked about the practice. "I have never been instructed by anybody that I've done criminal interdiction work for to go out and seek out only money. That's not what it's about. It's about putting bad guys in jail, criminals in jail. And criminals occasionally have money."

Would Osage County devote a deputy to full-time interdiction work on the Interstate if the effort didn't, in effect, pay for itself?

"That would be an administrative question," Long says.

An Administrative Question

An administrative question for Long's boss, Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert. The laconic, 58-year-old sheriff works in a cramped office with plywood paneling. He says he's had a deputy patrolling I-35 full-time since the early 1990s. "Seems like we seize anywhere from 40 to 60 or $80,000 worth, mostly cash, a year."

He alludes to the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which the Latin American ballplayer talks of how baseball has been "bery bery good to me."

"Well," says Lippert, "I-35's been very good to us."

Lippert says the proceeds from seized cash — and the seized cars the county auctions off from time to time — are a modest but much needed supplement to his million-dollar budget. He's spent forfeiture money to equip his squad cars with laptop computers, video cameras and the latest radar. He bought and remodeled an annex building for his investigators. And the Sheriff uses seized money, matched with a federal grant, to pay Deputy Long's salary.

"What he's doing down there doesn't cost the local taxpayers anything," Lippert says.

So, that question again. What if Lippert were not allowed to keep the proceeds of seized assets for his own budget?

"We probably wouldn't be working the Interstate…like we do now."

History of Asset Forfeiture

Asset forfeiture is nothing new. In the late 18th century, the United States government seized boats from pirates and from shippers who didn't pay their customs duty. But forfeiture wasn't widely used in modern times until 1984. Congress passed a law that year that in effect said to state and local police agencies: When you conduct a drug operation, you can keep most of the assets you seize and use the money to supplement your budget.

"It was Congress's intention to take the financial incentive out of crime," says John Roth, head of the U.S. Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section. The 1984 law was meant not only to hurt drug traffickers by taking their profits and their vehicles, but also to motivate police officials to go after drug criminals. "If there is asset forfeiture, people are going to be more vigorous in attempting to seize money," Roth says. "We think under the appropriate circumstances and with the appropriate controls, that's a good thing, because there is a significant law enforcement purpose behind this."

Among the nation's law enforcers, the effect of the 1984 law was like someone throwing a switch. Asset seizures jumped 20-fold, to more than half a billion dollars a year by the early 1990s. The federal government further encouraged the drug war by making grants to hire more cops and create drug task forces. Drug arrests shot up — everywhere, including rural Kansas.

At the Osage County jail, Sheriff Lippert studies the board listing the fifteen inmates currently occupying the day room. Eight of the fifteen are here on drug charges. A lot of crime in Osage county is tied to the proliferation of methamphetamine labs, the Sheriff says. The money Deputy Long seizes on I-35 helps the department go after local dealers like the ones in the county jail.

"Five of [the inmates' arrests] are direct work from our two narcotics investigators. They were arrested on search warrants and so on," says Lippert.

Proceeds from seized assets helped Lippert create two new drug investigator positions on his now-ten-member force.

Emphasis on Seizing Property

"Law enforcement agencies themselves have become addicted to the seizure of property," says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief in Kansas City and San Jose and now a research fellow with the Hoover Institution. "Law enforcement agencies are constantly under budget pressure and this is sort of a gift. And in some cases the emphasis on seizing property can overshadow the emphasis on enforcing the law."

McNamara remembers a time in the late 1980s when the San Jose city manager drew up a tentative budget for his 1,100-member police department. The budget line for equipment was marked zero. McNamara asked the city manager why. "And he just laughed and he waved his hand and he said, 'Last year you guys seized $4 million in drug seizures and I expect you to do better this year and you can buy all of the equipment that you need. And in fact your job performance will be evaluated on the fact that you seize more money than you did last year.'"

McNamara and other critics say the hunger for cash, through seized assets, leads to racial profiling, which is usually linked to interdiction efforts on highways. Some say it also causes misplaced priorities — too much pursuit of low-level drug couriers and users.

Like Jerry Gober.

The Reverse Sting

For more than a quarter-century, the 46-year-old Jerry Gober has been in the cabinetmaking business. He proudly shows off his busy woodworking shop in suburban Sugar Hill, Georgia, where he employs fifteen people making cabinets and shelving for homebuilders around Atlanta.

Gober insists he's never sold drugs. He does have a history of marijuana use and addiction to methamphetamine. But as a condition of his divorce in 1996, Gober had to take monthly drug tests in order to visit his children. He'd passed one on the morning of his arrest. He'd been clean for several months, he says. "It wouldn't have happened. I wasn't out looking for drugs that day."

But Gober's girlfriend at the time, Yvonne, called him and urged him to buy some meth for both of them from a dealer she knew. Gober and Yvonne were having a rocky time. What he didn't know was that she'd gone to the Gwinnett County police and offered to act as a paid informant.

"We weren't getting along that good and she didn't get along with the kids too good. I told her she had to move out and that pretty much made her mad. I guess that's what made her decide to try and get me in trouble."

Yvonne was helping the police set up Gober for a "reverse sting." In a traditional drug sting, undercover cops pose as drug buyers to bust a dealer. In a reverse, the cops become the seller and arrest the buyer. Reverse stings used to be rare; even now, not all police departments do them.

Attorney Donn Peevy heads the law firm representing Gober. In a former life in the 1970s, Peevy worked undercover drug cases as an officer with the Gwinnett County police. He recalls the first time he heard of reverse stings, in a discussion with the local district attorney.

"He said 'I've heard that in some of these states and in some other jurisdictions, they're doing reverse stings where police are selling drugs,'" Peevy recalls. "He told [those of] us in the vice squad then, 'Don't do it because I'm not going to prosecute it. Particularly if these people are addicted, they're easy targets and they can't help themselves. We could do them everyday and fill up the jails, but we wouldn't be stopping the problem with drug abuse and drug use.'"

Police departments started doing more reverses after asset forfeiture came into vogue in the 1980s. The traditional sting has no payoff; the police seize drugs and destroy them. In a reverse, the target brings cash the police can seize.

Now, back to our story. Jerry Gober's girlfriend, a police informant, calls him about a meth connection. "She told me that it was her cousin that had it," Gober says. He recalls Yvonne's initial offer was two ounces of the drug, though he says he can't remember the asking price.

Gober said no — three times. Yvonne kept calling back, lowering the amount of methamphetamine and the price. "And then the fourth time she called back, it was an ounce for a $1,000, which I think is probably half price," Gober says.

The Gwinnett County Police say a $1,000 for an ounce of meth is not a bargain; it's the going rate for traffickers. Gober says he'd never bought a whole ounce before that day. In any case, he gave in — to his girlfriend's pleading, he says, and to his own addiction. He got a $1,000 cash and went to meet the dealer — actually an undercover cop — in the parking lot of a local K-Mart.

A police video of the "take-down" shows Gober climbing into the detective's SUV and asking of the meth, "Is it pretty good?" Gober hands over his fistful of cash. Two vehicles pull up and four officers jump out shouting, "Don't move — police!"

The police arrested Gober and seized his SUV and his money. They first charged Gober with trafficking because he'd tried to buy an ounce of meth — a trafficking amount under Georgia law. If convicted on that charge Gober would have gone to prison for ten years. But he got lucky. Some of the powder spilled during the arrest, so the district attorney — fearing trouble in the courtroom over the alleged ounce — reduced the charge to possession. Gober spent just 30 days in jail and a year in house arrest. Because of technical mistakes by the police he even got his car and his $1,000 back.

Still, Gober and his lawyers argue that the Gwinnett County police, motivated by asset seizure, created a crime.

"I admit I shouldn't have been there to start with," Gober says. "I made a mistake. But after they called the first time and I said no, I think that should have been it. I don't think they should have pushed it, especially the second and third — you know, they called me four times before I said yes."

Gwinnett County law enforcement officials defend Gober's arrest as good police work. They argue Gober's hesitancy to make the buy was standard negotiation that comes with any drug deal. The fact that police created an opportunity for Gober to break the law doesn't make him any less guilty, says Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. "If you possess a controlled substance, if you sell it, if you manufacture it, if you possess it with intent to distribute, you're in violation of the law. Period. That's it."

Gwinnett is a large and fast-growing suburban county with a lively drug trade, police say. The local police seize, on average, $600,000 in cash and vehicles every year. Porter insists the police would do reverse stings even if the operations didn't yield cash for the department. Then again, he concedes the promise of asset seizure makes reverse stings affordable. "Because when you pretend to be a drug dealer, you've got to pretend all the way and you've got to show up with all the toys," Porter says. If not for the forfeiture statues, he adds, it would be hard for the head of the narc squad to "go up to the Chief of Police and say, 'We need to rent a fancy SUV for this case that is not going to — that's going to net us an arrest.' I suspect we'd have a harder time with that. So certainly forfeiture has some inducement, but we don't do it just for the money."


Some critics of asset forfeiture want to end the practice altogether. Others agree with police that forfeiture is a useful law enforcement tool; their objection is to what they consider a police conflict of interest. To solve that, some say, the proceeds of seized assets should go to general government coffers, not to police agencies. Every time someone proposes such a measure, law enforcement officials complain loudly.

In Kansas, a couple of state lawmakers want to redirect asset forfeiture proceeds to the school system. Here's what Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert thinks of that idea: "I don't see the schools out there, in all kinds of weather, in a car with a gun and a badge, trying to take the dope away from these people like my guys are. I feel like it's law enforcement money because we're out there earning it."

Each year, police make about one and a half million drug arrests and seize more than $500 million in assets. People who applaud the war on drugs and those who have doubts about it agree on this: Police and sheriffs' departments would not have waged the war with the same vigor over the last decade and a half if not for asset forfeiture.

Turning the Key: California's Prison Guards

Like any big industry, corrections is a major employer. More than 600,000 Americans work in a prison or jail - roughly the same as the number who work in the airline industry. The majority of corrections workers are guards. In California, the prison guards' union has become one of the most powerful and politically aggressive interest groups in the state. It lobbies hard for tough-on-crime laws.

A Spring Day in Sacramento

In a crowded hearing room in the state Capitol, a middle-aged woman with red hair steps to the podium.

"Thank you for this opportunity," she says. "My name is Vivian Moen and I'm from Fountain Valley, California and my son was sentenced under the Three Strikes law for simple drug possession, 25 years to life."

Vivian Moen works at a Newport Beach hotel as a hospitality coordinator. She spends a lot of her spare time as an activist with a group called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, or FACTS. Her son, Doug Rash, is 35 and a drug addict. He got his first two strikes, for a pair of burglaries, in the 1980s.

"His first strike was taking a music keyboard from his father's house and pawning it," Moen tells the Assembly committee. "His stepmother thought that she would press charges hoping that he would get some help with his drug problem."

Strike two? A friend of Rash's had broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to retrieve his CD's from an apartment the two had shared. The friend had moved out of the apartment but still had a key. "So [Doug] went with him to the apartment to get the CD's. Her father arrived, had them arrested. Nothing was taken. That was his second strike."

Then, in 1994, Rash got caught with four tenths of a gram of cocaine in his pants pocket. Strike three. Rash is now in a state prison and he won't be free until at least 2014.

Later, on the same bright morning, on the grounds at one end of the Capitol, a band of protesters calls for changes in the Three Strikes law. They wear black t-shirts and carry signs like, 'Stop filling prisons with non-violent offenders!' They chant, "Let the time fit the crime!" They reflect a growing push in California, by ballot initiative and in the Assembly, to limit the state's Three Strikes law to violent felons.

California enacted the nation's first Three Strikes law in 1994, after several high-profile murders by repeat offenders - most explosively, the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender on parole at the time of the murder. The Three Strikes law allows judges to give three-time felons twenty-five years to life with no chance for parole. In the 25 other states that subsequently passed Three Strikes laws, only serious or violent felonies count as strikes. Not in California. Almost half of the state's third-strikers locked up since 1994 - more than 3,000 people - were convicted of non-violent third strikes such as drug possession, drug sales, and petty theft.

"Somebody that I love dearly has been sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-violent felony - extortion of $800," says protester Gabrielle Thompson of San Jose. Thompson has changed her mind since the early 1990s. "I voted for Three Strikes and I had no idea the implications of what I was doing. Everybody was in a frenzy. It was a very emotional issue. And I think like the rest of the general public, we assumed it was going to affect murderers, child molesters…. And it's a huge waste of our tax dollars and resources."

The opponents of Three Strikes have gotten a huge boost from recent court decisions that could affect hundreds of cases. Last fall, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Three Strikes resulted in cruel and unusual punishment in the case of Leandro Andrade. He was sentenced to fifty years in prison with no chance for parole. His third strike: stealing $150 worth of videos from Kmart. In February, the court struck down two more Three Strikes sentences for offenders convicted of petty theft, calling their sentences "grossly disproportionate."

This spring the United States Supreme Court agreed to use two of the California cases to decide whether states violate the Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel or unusual punishment by using Three Strikes laws to give long sentences for minor offenses.

Follow the Money

But Three Strikes has powerful defenders - in the Governor's office, the Assembly, and crime victims' groups. They reject any effort to soften the law. Follow the money behind California's tough-on-crime coalition and one group looms startlingly large: the prison guards union.

Just around the corner from the anti-Three-Strikes rally, on the Capitol's front steps, there's a distinctly different kind of demonstration - one with uniformed color guard, recorded music by John Philip Sousa played over loudspeakers, and the Pledge of Allegiance. A few hundred members of crime victims' groups sit in chairs arranged in neat rows on the capitol lawn. Poster-sized photos of murder victims line the steps in front of the podium. On the grass lie rows of white cardboard coffins.

Presiding at the podium: Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - the CCPOA. Every spring, the prison guards union sponsors this event, the Victims' March on the Capitol.

Novey invites Mindy Russell, a Sacramento police chaplain, to deliver the invocation. Opening her Bible, Russell reads a passage from the book of Proverbs that, perhaps, captures this crowd's feelings about criminals.

"This is a description of worthless and wicked people," she reads. "They are constant liars, signaling their true intentions to their friends by making signs with their eyes and feet and fingers. Their perverted hearts plot evil and they stir up trouble constantly. But they will be destroyed suddenly, broken beyond all hope."

This demonstration has amenities: a big tent for those who want shade; lunch; and, lined up at the curb, the charter buses that brought in rally participants from up and down the state. The prison guards' union pays for everything.

"I have to say that CCPOA is very generous for us. They are our number one helper," says 69-year-old Harriet Salarno, the head of Crime Victims United of California. Salarno's daughter was murdered in 1979. Her group is devoted to "public safety" - that is, tough punishment for criminals. Though the victim's movement is often called "grassroots," Crime Victims United and another prominent California victim's group, the Doris Tate Bureau, owe their existence to the prison guards.

"I got a phone call from Don Novey to meet him in Sacramento at his office," Salarno says, recalling her first meeting with the union president in 1990. "And I said … 'We victims don't have any support. I've been coming up to Sacramento as a bleeding heart mother trying to get legislation and nobody would listen.' He says, 'OK, then, well, let's us help you.' So we founded Crime Victims United of California together, and in fact our headquarters is at the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation, which is part of their organization."

A Successful Agenda

The prison guards' organization grew dramatically over the past two decades, right alongside California's prison population. While the number of inmates soared from 28,000 in 1980 to 160,000 in 2000, the union's membership swelled from fewer than 5,000 to 31,000. Their $59 a month dues payments give the union a $22 million annual budget.

In 1980, the union had a staff of four. Today, Union Vice President Lance Corcoran, a former guard and the union's chief spokesman, is one of 90 employees. "We have two in-house, full-time lobbyists," Corcoran says while giving a tour of the two-story union headquarters in west Sacramento. "And, depending on what's happening, we employ anywhere from three to sometimes as many as six contract lobbyists." The union has emerged as one of California's biggest political donors. Its Political Action Committees have doled out almost ten million dollars since 1998.

The CCPOA uses some of its clout on bread-and-butter issues. The average California guard now earns about $50,000 dollars a year - almost twice the national average for corrections officers. Under a new contract to take effect in 2003, California guards will earn up to $73,000. That contract was pushed through the state senate by Majority Leader John Burton and signed by Governor Gray Davis. The CCPOA gave Burton more than $400,000 for his last campaign. It spent more than $2 million supporting Davis's election in 1998.

Still, Corcoran doesn't like hearing the union described as powerful. "'Powerful' I think has sort of a negative connotation that we abuse that power in some ways," he says. "I think a more appropriate term would be 'successful.' We have successfully moved our agenda by supporting candidates that are willing to listen to our issues."

Those issues include not only wages and vacation time and training, but also tough-on-crime policies.

Defending Three Strikes

At the state Assembly hearing, the guard union's chief lobbyist, Jeff Thompson (speaking "on behalf of Crime Victims United of California, also with the CCPOA"), argues against any softening of Three Strikes. The law has helped stabilize the prison population, he says, "as the true habitual criminals have been incarcerated and off the street."

California's crime rate has dropped by 40% since 1994, a fact the union attributes largely to the deterrent effect of the Three Strikes law. The law's critics point out that crime dropped about as much in New York State (41%), Massachusetts (33%) and Washington D.C. (31%), none of which have adopted Three Strikes.

Thousands of union jobs are at stake in the battle over Three Strikes. If the law goes unchanged, a dozen years from now California prisons will hold an estimated fifteen thousand aging third strikers, most of whom would have been released years earlier without the law.

In the hallway after the hearing, lobbyist Thompson huddles with members of victims' groups. He sends them to lobby Assembly members against the Three Strikes reform bill. "Go to the main bank of elevators across from the Governor's office and there's a roster," he says. "Go get 'em."

Reform on the Ballot

Back in 1993, the guards' union was a leading funder of the campaign for Proposition 184, the initiative to create the Three Strikes law. (After the initiative passed, the Assembly passed the law that took effect in 1994.) Eight years later, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is sponsoring a bill to put Three Strikes reform on this November's ballot. She argues the nation's strictest Three Strikes law has managed to survive this long because of the California prison guards.

"They're essential to it," Goldberg says. "First of all they give an enormous number of legislators donations in their campaigns. We, including myself, seek their support."

The CCPOA gave two million dollars to legislative campaigns in each of the last two election cycles - including six-figure donations to several Assembly leaders. Even Jackie Goldberg got $5,000 from the union for her 2000 election campaign. She opposes private prisons, as does the union, and she's pro-labor. But she's troubled by what she sees as the union's conflict of interest on sentencing issues.

"You know, I support the correctional officers' union, their right to organize, to decent pay and decent working conditions. I find it not appropriate, in my humble opinion, for them to try to make sure that the prison population stays large - if that's what in fact they're doing."

It's not, says the CCPOA's Vice President, Lance Corcoran.

"I can't say it any more plain. I mean, I'll give you a copy of the purpose of the organization. 'Promote and enhance the correctional profession and protect the welfare of those engaged in it.'"

And to advocate in the political arena for certain kinds of policies?

"Well, I think that's part of it," Corcoran says. "I think that's part of the entire mix."

The union's activism on crime policy is no different from that of, say, teachers' unions, who lobby on education issues, Corcoran says. If teachers know about the needs of students, prison guards are experts on criminals. It's for that reason that guards and crime victims have a "natural kinship," according to union leaders. Both feel, first-hand, the damage that criminals do. "And just because an individual is sentenced to confinement, [that] doesn't mean that they haven't stopped victimizing individuals," says Corcoran. "Matter of fact, we now become, many times, the victims of their actions."

The notion that prison guards walk "the toughest beat in the state" has been the focus of a CCPOA public relations campaign in recent years. In one of several videos commissioned by the union and aired as infomercials on state cable channels, guards at the Corcoran maximum-security prison tell of being assaulted by inmates without reason or warning.

"You're constantly on the lookout because inmates are trying to spit in your face or trying to throw feces on you," one guard says. Another talks of riots erupting at a moment's notice.

"[Prison guards] see, unfortunately, the worst side of human nature day in and day out," says Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "I think that skews their impressions."

Having suggested that the union works to keeps the prisons full in order to protect its membership and power, Goldberg concedes that that self-interest appears to coincide with the union leaders' sincere beliefs on criminal justice policy. Goldberg says she's convinced that CCPOA leaders genuinely think it's in society's interests to keep repeat criminals behind bars for 25 years to life - even those who commit relatively minor third strikes.

"I think it's unfair to say that they're just trying to make sure they have a job next year," says Goldberg. "I don't believe that. But I do believe that they have a skewed sense of reality."

Given their formidable power, Goldberg says, the union and its lobbyists "create an environment in which policymakers lose sight of simple ideas like the punishment should fit the crime."

The CCPOA's critics say, in effect, to state policymakers: Ignore them. They're the prison guards.

The union says to state leaders: You'd better listen to us. We're the prison guards.

The battle goes on in Sacramento and across California.