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New Internationalist Issue 282

United States


Richard Swift visits the jailers and the jailed - in a system that's become an end in itself.

Beefy hands are clasped over patriotic hearts as they play the Star Spangled Banner. The pastor opens with a dedication to those who 'are no longer with us from last year'.

It's a sweltering-hot weekend in mid-May. The American Jail Association - the AJA, which covers the local-jail system in the US - is getting together for its annual convention in St Louis. Attenders run the gamut. Most are no-nonsense 'correctional officers' who come in all colours and sizes - but mostly large. There are good-ol'-boy sheriffs complete with cowboy boots, cigars and bellies spilling over belts. The younger (thinner and scarier) 'don't-give-'em-an-inch-or-they'll-take-a-mile' guys are sporting suits and crewcuts. There is a scattering of black faces in the crowd, probably equivalent to the African-American percentage of the US population, but nowhere near the percentage of black inmates that crowd the country's jails.

Then there are the social-worker types (more women here) dealing with everything from inmate programming to mental-health and drug counselling. Time served in the US local jail system, on charges relating to simple theft or assault, prostitution, some drug and alcohol offences and a wide range of disorderly conduct, is usually measured in weeks. As the minimal US welfare net is even further shredded, it falls to the nation's badly overcrowded jails to pick up the pieces of shattered underclass lives. Unfortunately, counselling about jobs and help in improving self-esteem tends to be counter-productive behind bars.

A moderate tone is set in the opening address by Chris Scott, a prison governor with Her Majesty's Prison Service in Britain and formerly head of the Prison Governors' Association. There is the usual stuff about the thin blue line of corrections officers protecting society from 'anarchy'. He goes on to delineate the differences between the British and US criminal-justice systems, expressing the usual incredulity about the election of local judges and sheriffs in the US. He is polite enough not to mention that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the Western world.

But Scott's main emphasis is on balancing punishment with forgiveness and moral reform. There is also barely disguised disquiet at the current 'tough-on-crime' approaches of British Home Secretary Michael Howard (who wants all new prisons privately run) and his Labour alter-ego Jack Straw (most recently obsessed with curfews to make sure children are neither seen nor heard). Shrinking budgets and higher levels of incarceration are optimistically portrayed as a 'challenge' rather than a nightmare.

But prison expansion is not just driven by 'tough-on-crime' politicians and a sanctimonious media. The crime-control industry is buried deep in the economic soil of the US - and will soon jump the Atlantic if Michael Howard gets his way. And 'our industry' is exactly how America's jailers talk about it, these hot days in St Louis. The language of commerce competes with cool professional rhetoric and occasional tough-guy machismo. Words like 'management', 'security' and especially 'control' pepper the conversation. Workshop themes cover the waterfront, from youth gangs to chain gangs. The jailers worry about everything, from how to deal with court orders over prison conditions ('They've got to be smokin' something down at the courthouse!') to their own retirement prospects.

'It's ugly, how much money he's now worth.' The speaker is a big ol' boy from one of the West Virginia jails. He is recalling a common acquaintance in the prison-design business with an enthusiastic young blonde woman from down in Tampa, Florida. 'We all went and visited your jail down there. Made me think I was at the NASA space station in Houston. Talk about high-tech!' It turns out his designer pal has made his fortune by selling out to the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the biggies of the lucrative prison-industrial complex. The woman from Tampa is in awe of the new facilities just up the road in Orlando: 'They get all that money from tourists visiting Disneyworld and they use it to just keep building more and more jails. They've got the highest rate of incarceration in the State.'

I half-expect to be grabbed, slammed against a wall and asked what the hell I think I'm doing.

The real centre of the action at the AJA convention is an exposition of over 200 booths offering such goodies as new razor-wire perimeter fences, special jailhouse furniture, medical and TB-detection services, prison construction, a myriad of different computer systems and anything else that might prove useful inside prison walls. These are the folks who provide not only the hot canapés and free drinks in the hospitality suites but also the revenue that allows the AJA to run this shindig in the first place. The companies that display here, and at the much larger American Correctional Association (who run the US penitentiary system), are the profit centres of the burgeoning crime-control industry. They vary from corporate heavy-hitters like AT&T and NEC to 'mom-and-pop' outfits like RIPP restraints or Silent Witness with their new video-monitoring system.

As the jailers wind their way through the aisles, it's just like selling soap or lawn furniture. 'Hi Charlie! Wondered if I was going to see you and the wife down here this year!'... 'Don, are you worried about key control right now? Well, why not?'... 'We call this video camera our tough little Pit Bull. It will take a kicking and just keep on filming.'... 'This [restraining] belt is the twinkle toe, ma'am. He isn't kicking and he isn't running. He won't play rabbit on you. The LAPD use 'em.'

The booths are a delight for anyone into post-modern iconography. There are dummies of prisoners cowering in special bunkbeds. There is one of a prisoner strapped into a restraining chair and made up to look like Saddam Hussein. There is the dummy of an LA cop, looking for all the world like Vampira, advertising a portable video pack complete with helmet camera and wrist monitor: 'All for under $5,000,' I'm assured. There are the salesmen from Bob Barker Inc., dressed in their convict stripes, selling 'paddy-wagon retrofits'. The slogans are catchy too: 'Built to last a life sentence'; 'We design for the world's toughest customers'; a line of prison T-shirts with slogans like 'Hard Time Bed and Breakfast: Three Hots and a Cot'.

As I wander among the displays snapping semi-clandestine photos I half expect to be grabbed, slammed against a wall and asked just what in the hell I think I'm doing. But I need not have feared. All is business-as-usual, without defensiveness or indeed any shadow of epistemological doubt. Most of these people are not like the nasty sheriff who pushed Paul Newman around in Cool Hand Luke, but 'professionals' simply doing their job - the processing, incarceration and guarding of America's growing underclass. It seems to me a good sign when the workshop on chain gangs draws only a fifth of those attending the one on inmate suicide. That is, until it becomes clear that the jailers' main worry here is the threat of being sued by bereaved and bitter inmate families. In such discussions the flesh-and-blood inmate is totally absent; prisoners are simply objects to be 'managed' with the least possible fuss.

While most of the jailers see overcrowding as a problem (predictions that certain prisons are ready to 'blow' are common) what really worries them most is the threat of privatization. The sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, gives a positively evangelical oration on the follies of private prisons: 'Do they give a rat's fur about their employees? Of course not There was no control in the place, people were running around like it was the Atlanta airport.' For these people, the threat of privatization has displaced the debate that really needs to happen about the value of mass incarceration, full stop. But that might prove an even greater threat to their chosen careers. Whether private or public, the drive for control through incarceration is never in question. Both are pushed forward by jobs, profits and an overpowering institutional momentum.

Any doubts about this are quickly expelled by a tour of the nearby new highrise St Louis Justice Center. In loving detail a series of planners, architects, corrections bureaucrats and legal functionaries ('The Transition Team') tell us more than we ever wanted to know about their pride and joy - currently under construction. How they 'sold' the Center to the local community of Clayton. How difficult it is to 'key' a facility with 2,000 doors. What the colour-coded 'sally-forths' on the blue-prints mean. How you have to be able to defend the operating manual in court. The advantages of the new 'pod' approach to cell construction.

I am curious to know how many more poor St Louisians can expect to be hosted in such a facility, compared with present arrangements. I ask one keen member of The Transition Team and she replies: 'We now have capacity for about 750.' Then her face breaks into a happy grin: 'But with the new facility we could max out at 1,250!' The Transition Team is planning for an opening gala with a special 'spend the evening in jail' for the good burghers of St Louis. It is plain to me that with so much money - to say nothing of energy and enthusiasm - invested in the Justice Center, not many cells are likely to remain empty.

It's funny how you can know something in theory but need to experience it emotionally before it really becomes part of you. It was that way with my first real visit to a place where people do hard time: the Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston, Canada's prison town par excellence. The prison combines modern razor wire with Camelot-like turrets from the early twentieth-century school of prison architecture. Collins Bay is medium-security where, unlike jails run by the folks from the American Jail Association, time is measured not in days but in years, even decades.

The inmates can walk around its institutionalized halls freely at certain time periods - just like high school. The meeting room is a shabby, paint-peeling affair and the tobacco smoke soon hangs heavy in the air. Do I expect to be held hostage, or at least roundly denounced as a sensation-seeking journalist? But there are no horns to be seen on the 12 guys I sit around the room with. It is hard to believe they are mostly bank robbers and murderers. Sure, there are lots of tattoos and T-shirts that say stuff like 'Kick Butt'. Yet the discussions are remarkably civilized; more civilized than many NI co-operative meetings. There is lots of humour too. One three-time bank robber, on hearing where the NI Toronto office is located, offers: 'That is excellent bank-robbing territory.'

Tony, who has been in stir since the 1970s, leads off with an angry outburst about a corrections system he feels is self-perpetuating and designed to fail. He speaks through a thin black cigar clenched between his teeth, his gravelly voice betraying years of frustration with the incompetence of those motivated only by good salaries and healthy pensions. Later, in a more reflective mood, he quotes Dostoyevsky on judging a society by how it keeps its prisoners.

'Look, in here being a model prisoner means turning yourself into some kind of semi-robot. But how do you undo that when you get outside?'

Steve, the small wiry bankrobber who is chairing the meeting, chimes in with a critique of arbitrary staff behaviour: 'Look, in here being a model prisoner means turning yourself into some kind of semi-robot. But how do you undo that when you get outside?' Others offer stories of courses - prerequisites for parole consideration - that have been denied them for years because of overcrowded conditions and shrinking resources. The general consensus is that the most valuable courses are ones that teach high-end trades or provide advanced education. Both have been severely cut back or eliminated entirely. There is generally low regard for more behavioural courses like 'criminal attitudes' and 'anger management': 'You see someone in here as a guard and before you know it they are back on contract as a professional instructor.'

Their observations on life on the inside are perhaps a bit sanitized by their desire to counter negative stereotypes about racism and violence. Many of the inmates in Collins Bay are black or Asian (mostly Vietnamese) and the general feeling around the room is 'live and let live'. Of more concern is the generation gap between older and younger prisoners: 'These kids come in and think they can blast heavy metal at 4.00 in the morning - well, no you can't. I find myself becoming my own father.' Steve concludes that 'prison is a lot like marriage. It's not the big things, like losing a job or the car getting repossessed, that set people off, but the little things, like not putting up the toilet seat.' What is left unsaid is that disagreements can be settled with a home-made 'shank' (knife).

But there is solidarity too. The inmates describe a recent 'lockdown', or prisoners' strike, which was decided range by range (prison living area) via secret ballot. There are stories of lifers finally out on parole who come back regularly as prison visitors. Still, relationships are bound to be strained by the prison environment. Prisoners cannot be too friendly to the guards, for fear of what other inmates may think; and guards cannot be too friendly to prisoners, for fear of what other guards may think.

I am fascinated that these inmates go out of their way to show that the prison service is failing in its own terms. Their analysis may be a shade conspiratorial, but who can deny their basic premise: that the punishment bureaucracy is quickly becoming an end in itself?

John, a muscular biker who is finally getting paroled after 18 years, ponders aloud the futility of aping the US model. When the discussion turns to the privatization of punishment he is quick to point out that the in-built dynamic for profitable growth in such a system will become virtually impossible to stop. Someone adds: 'What the public forgets is that there are men and women getting out of prison every day. They carry with them the anger and frustration of prison.' Interestingly, no-one will say that there is no place for prison, even when I ask this question directly. The old-timers reminisce about the days when five years was a long sentence: 'Now when they say 20 years they mean 20 years.'

These prisoners have seen years of overcrowding, double-bunking, cutbacks in inmate programming and reduction in paroles and day passes ('though they were 98-per-cent successful'). They put it down to a crime-obsessed press and to opportunistic politicians, but also to the changing, more materialistic times: 'When the hippies became yuppies we were in trouble.'
Steve, who has a good turn of metaphor, concludes: 'Prison authority is a lot like a two-year-old who says "I'll show you!" and then holds his breath until he turns blue.'

I think maybe they should ask Steve to lead a workshop when the AJA gets together in Salt Lake City next year.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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