by John Biewen
The Story Behind "Corrections, Inc."
Reporter John Biewen on his investigation of imprisonment as a profit-making business.
After years of reporting on marginalized Americans - and, recently, the swelling numbers of mentally ill prisoners - I and some colleagues at American RadioWorks were keenly interested in the explosive growth of the nation's prison population. For a couple of decades the country has been intensely concerned about crime. But it seemed to us that society's response during this period - an unprecedented experiment in mass-incarceration - was under-reported and poorly understood. What were the costs and benefits of the prison boom? Why did it happen?
In researching those questions and listening to commentary on them, I kept coming across the notion of the "prison-industrial complex," a phrase meant to evoke the more familiar "military-industrial complex." The idea is that forces with a financial interest in a big prison population have helped to cause, and perpetuate, the prison boom. We're locking up 2 million people on any given day - four times the number in 1980 - because there's money in it, the argument goes. Some even point to the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and Latinos and declare prisons a modern form of slavery: profit earned off the bodies of racial minorities.
I found that those who made the accusation rarely cited concrete examples. Companies making millions from the prison expansion lobby for tough sentencing laws, activists would say. Which companies? Lobbying how? Few had answers. And while journalists had pointed out the growth of the corrections industry, I could find little reporting that looked head-on for a specific kind of link: groups with monetary interests taking action to influence who gets locked up and for how long. So I set out to find such stories and pull them together.
The three stories told here emerged as the most striking and significant I could find. Clearly, thousands of people have gone to prison, or stayed there longer, because of the American Legislative Exchange Council (and its corporate backers), the California guards' union, and cops in pursuit of drug-related assets.
A mannequin displays products for sale to the prison industry at the annual trade show sponsored by the The American Correctional Association. Some believe that forces with a financial interest in a big prison population have helped to cause, and perpetuate, the prison boom. Photo: Steve Schapiro
Perhaps because questions about money and the politics of crime haven't been raised much in the media, I sometimes found my interviewees surprisingly (at least to me) guileless. The Wisconsin lawmaker who freely admits he drew up a truth-in-sentencing bill based on ALEC's "model legislation," and used ALEC's "research" to argue for the bill. The Kansas county sheriff, Ken Lippert, who argues with no apparent irony that his department should get to keep the proceeds of seized assets because his deputies are "out there earning it."
By contrast, Brad Wiggins, Director of Customer Relations for the Corrections Corporation of America - and the company's current representative on ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force - was very much on guard. When I approached Wiggins, microphone in hand, he was chatting with lawmakers at the company's exhibit booth at the ALEC conference in New York. At the sight of me, Wiggins blushed and declined to speak.
I was one of exactly three journalists at the ALEC meeting - a measure of the group's low public profile - and the only one, as far as I know, who attempted to cover anything other than the opening luncheon. ALEC staffers were cooperative in granting me access to the conference, but less forthcoming in answering questions about the group's funders. ALEC now keeps most information about its private-sector members in a password-protected "members only" section of it's Web site. Much of my information on ALEC and its contributors came courtesy of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, which gathered documents before the group pulled them off its site.
You'll notice that in each of these stories, the motivations of the key players are ambiguous or layered. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is active in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in part, as a way to sell lawmakers on the virtues of prison privatization; it just happens that ALEC also pushes tough sentencing laws that create demand for companies like CCA. Many cops believe they're fighting a just war against the drug trade and consider asset forfeiture an essential weapon - and a key revenue source. Leaders of the California guards union may sincerely think Three Strikes makes society safer even as it preserves guards' jobs and union power.
Such ambiguities are just one reason it's hard to quantify the size and impact of the prison-industrial complex. Just how much of the prison boom can be attributed to the influence of vested interests? The answer to that question would take a complex analysis indeed, and might ultimately be nothing more than an educated estimate.
I expect that listeners' and readers' reactions to these stories will depend in part on their feelings about the war on crime. But to me, the questions raised by "Corrections, Inc." are ultimately not about criminal justice policy but about our democracy. Most of us form our disparate opinions on crime and punishment based on values: fairness, personal responsibility, and what's best for public safety now and in the future. We may not be on the lookout for self-interested players - as we are in some other public policy debates - because we're not used to thinking of imprisonment as a profit-making business. It is. And in order to spot interest groups with monetary motives and, at the very least, weigh their arguments and their actions with special care, we need to know that they're there.