The prison industry descended on the City of Brotherly Love in August for the American Correctional Association’s 131st annual Congress of Corrections. The gathering at the Pennsylvania Convention Center featured an industry trade show with more than 600 booths – representing all facets of prisons, from wardens and weapons-makers to food services and HMOs. But the ACA also attracted activists from around the country who came to protest the “hall of torture.”
While the ACA claims to care for prisoners and promote a balanced approach to criminal justice, protesters say it depends on corporations that exploit the expansion of the prison system. “These people can’t present viable reforms,” fumed April Rosenblum, a Philadelphia resident who came out to demonstrate. “They look at our families torn apart by addiction, our youth denied real resources and education – and what they see is money to be made off imprisoning us.”
The prison industry is growing rapidly. According to The Sentencing Project, although violent crime rates have dropped, the prison population has been doubling every 10 years. There are more than 2 million people now incarcerated in the United States; more than 275,000 are in private jails, and the capacity of private prisons in the United States is expected to double in the next three years. For-profit prison revenues passed the $1 billion mark in 1998. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, federal prisoners accounted for 72 percent of the growth in private prison populations in 2000.
The ACA is the nation’s leading inspector of prison facilities, and, increasingly, it is accrediting private institutions. Accreditation legitimizes corrections programs in the eyes of legislators and government officials and helps prison companies market their services.
The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest operator of privatized prisons in the country, boasts that almost 75 percent of its facilities are ACA-accredited. The CCA has 65 facilities in the United States and Puerto Rico and houses more than 55,000 inmates, which yielded them $310 million in revenues in 1999.
Behind the display at the trade show, Brad Wiggins, senior director of customer relations for the CCA, emphasized that privatization has made the prison industry more cost-effective because it has created a climate of managed competition in the industry. CCA also says that privatizing prisons goes toward the greater good by helping to reduce the problem of overcrowded prisons and allowing funds to be allocated elsewhere.
But human rights groups question whether managed competition has compromised the national prison accreditation standard. A recent AFSCME report declared that for-profit prisons decrease quality of services and threaten public safety. A CCA facility in Youngstown, Ohio is now being shut down after two inmates were murdered as guards looked on, and 40 were assaulted by guards in 1998 – the same year the ACA found the Youngstown facility to be in 100 percent compliance with all mandatory standards. And a 1994 Amnesty International investigation found that on Death Row at the ACA-accredited Oklahoma State Penitentiary, prisoners were locked down for 23 hours a day with no way of contacting guards in an emergency.
To get out their message that the ACA must be held accountable for human rights abuses in prisons they have accredited, the Coalition Against the ACA hosted a counter-conference and a series of demonstrations. Dubbing the ACA “the pinnacle of our social disease,” the group advocated community monitoring of prison conditions and focused on medical neglect in prison health systems and on phone companies’ price-gouging for prisoner calls. The Coalition’s week-long protests put the ACA on the defensive. “ACA does not support building bigger and bigger prisons,” read a statement from the organization. “No ACA policy or resolution supports ‘no frills’ prisons and jails.”
Abbott Laboratories, one of the regular attendees at the annual trade show, came under especially heavy criticism from protesters. Abbott manufactures sodium thiopental, a key ingredient in lethal injections. But after a group called Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty besieged Abbott with calls and e‑mails warning them about the direct action campaign they had planned against them, Abbot stayed away.
Spurred by this victory, ex-inmates and allies from the Coalition disrupted the ACA’s closing plenary. Four protesters entered the meeting room and began shouting the coalition’s demands – which include reforming accreditation standards and incorporating prisoners into the ACA’s decision-making process. ACA officers responded by bizarrely breaking into patriotic song to try to drown them out. For nearly a half-hour, the room resounded with a chorus of “America the Beautiful” over screeches of “Cease accrediting super-max prisons and prisons that contain control units and insist that accredited prisons phase out existing control units!”
When the police came, they arrested the four activists, along with eight other bystanders and reporters. “It was a fine way to bid farewell to the American Correctional Association – from inside a Philly prison,” said one arrested demonstrator. “We fulfilled our mandate– we’ll see if they fulfill theirs.”