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."
Next: Is the Prison Industry Self-Serving?