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
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.
Marchers in Philadelphia
American Correctional Association.
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."