Article on ACA and prison vendor industry cites PLN
Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market
By DAVID SEGAL
Is there anything that cannot be turned into a weapon? Walk around the exhibitors’ hall at the conference of the American Correctional Association, held in Indianapolis in early August, and at some point the question will answer itself. Apparently, with enough malign intent and the right tools — a lighter, for instance — even disposable plates can be transformed into shivs.
“This is a piece of Styrofoam, rolled, then heated, then rolled and heated some more,” said Michael Robertson, salesman for a company called JonesZylon. He handed over a dark brown, six-inch spike that looked nothing like a piece of Styrofoam. Touch its sharpened end and it felt like the tip of a blade.
“Now this,” he continued, handing over a plastic JonesZylon serving tray, “you can’t weaponize.”
The tray is part of an extensive line of plastic kitchen products, including cups, plates and bowls, sold by the company. You will find these in just about every federal prison, Mr. Robertson said. They can’t be rolled and heated into anything harmful, and if inmates throw them at you, they will not inflict much pain.
“You’d definitely feel it,” he said.
“But,” a colleague said, “it won’t penetrate the skin.”
Mr. Robertson was one of 264 vendors in booths at the Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry. It is the shiny, customer-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The A.C.A. accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.
The convention is where those people window-shop. The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer. Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on. These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private. Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.
For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment. Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough-on-crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far. Mandatory minimum laws, many of them passed at the state and federal level in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s locked people away for decades, often for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Those laws have had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who tend to serve longer sentences than whites.
For families, the results have been devastating. Former inmates are stigmatized and have a far harder time finding jobs, causing incalculable social and economic damage. And a paucity of rehabilitation programs keeps many former criminals ensnared. Nearly three out of four inmates offend again after five years.
The first stirrings of sentencing overhaul happened five years ago, around the time that California’s prison system was so bursting with inmates that a federal court called the conditions unconstitutional and mandated reductions. Texas has stepped up its use of community supervision programs and drug courts. For the first time in state history, it has closed prisons — three of them. The point is to save money, as former Gov. Rick Perry underscored time and again.
More recently, for reasons both humanitarian and fiscal, the notion of changing sentencing laws has gone national. At a time when congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on almost nothing, there is a rare political consensus that the criminal justice system needs to try something other than severity. In July, when President Obama called on Congress to pass laws that would slash mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, the response was essentially “We’re already on it.” Bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act have support across the spectrum, from Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on the left to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on the right.
My goal ambling through the oddly colorful bazaar in Indianapolis for three days was to see what effect — if any — this much discussed change was having on the hard-nosed bottom line. Was anyone here experiencing a slump, or even bracing for one? Nobody wants businesses to suffer financially, but if you think the current incarceration system is a calamity, there is no way around it: Bad news for these companies is good news for the country. And if change was coming, or had already arrived, these vendors would be among the first to know.
I had no idea what I would find. But a few days before the exhibition doors opened, I spoke on the telephone to a skeptic, a guy who just didn’t believe that the country was really on the verge of a correctional system makeover.
“It’s hard for me not to be cynical about it,” said Jack Cowley, a retired warden who lives in Oklahoma. “Think about the size of our system, all the judges and lawyers, putting their kids through college, people that make leg irons, Tasers. Crime is driving the train. It’s like a business that is too big to fail.”
Prison in Lime and Mango
The A.C.A. bills its conferences as events offering “multiple ways to network with industry professionals, find a mentor, get a sneak peek at emerging technology and hone your leadership skills.” This sounds like any other conference in any other industry, and in many ways it was. Many booths were staffed by average-looking men standing beside strikingly attractive women. There were a lot of polo shirts stitched with company names. Branded tchotchkes, like pens and key chains, were laid out for the taking. A raffle for a Chevy Cruze was held on the final day. A woman fell to her knees in joy when she won.
Beyond the familiar conference format, however, things got weirder. Secure, a Mexican company that sells bulletproof glass, showed a video in which the company’s president stood behind his product — while it was repeatedly shot at with a gun. The guy tried to look nonchalant by puffing on a cigarette.
The event was open to the media, though for reasons that were never clear, news photographers were barred from the exhibit hall. While A.C.A. doesn’t want the industry shrouded in mystery, it is not eager for a close-up either. This might stem from less-than-flattering attention the conference has received in the past. A documentary called “Profits of Punishment,” released in 2001, included a stroll through the A.C.A. exhibitors’ hall, where vendors boasted a little too proudly of the effectiveness of their merchandise. One woman talked about the 600 stitches an inmate needed after an encounter with her company’s barbed wire. The film captures an industry relishing a boom.
“The growth in the corrections population here in the United States will probably double in the next 10 years,” one vendor says on film, clearly pleased. “They’re building just about as fast as they can.”
In Indianapolis this summer, there were the ingratiating smiles that are always part of sales, but nobody seemed giddy. Concern about sentencing reform was in the air, but more than a few vendors seemed to regard the trend as a business opportunity.
Bob Barker started selling supplies to prisons in 1972, which, coincidentally, was the same year that a gentleman with the same name started hosting a certain television game show. Though the two look nothing alike, he has been confused for the more famous Bob Barker for so long he has stopped correcting people.
“Guy was just over here who said, ‘I’ve followed you since you were on ‘Truth or Consequences!’ ” Mr. Barker reported with a smile. “I said, ‘I appreciate that.’ ”
When Mr. Barker founded his company, he met a lot of incredulous wardens.
“I would go into jails and start talking toothbrushes and deodorant and I’d get, ‘What do you think this is, a Holiday Inn?’ If somebody didn’t bring you underwear or a toothbrush you didn’t get it.”
Then the drug culture grew, and detention professionals realized that to prevent the flow of drugs into prisons, they had to stop visitors from handing anything to inmates. When that happened, they started buying from Mr. Barker, who today sells about 5,000 different items, making him the largest detention supplier in the country. His inventory includes laundry bags, boots, board games and something called the BarkerBunk, described as “the toughest stackable correctional specific inmate bunk.”
Mr. Barker would not say much about his company’s financial performance in the last two or three years, other than to describe it as “sort of flat.” He seems unbothered by that, noting that the industry provided his family with a good living for 40 years. But his son, Robert Barker, who is the company’s president, was standing next to him, and he sounded anything but defeatist.
“We’re looking long term at how we can be part of the solution,” the younger Mr. Barker said. “With more re-entry programs out there, we’re looking at future supply opportunities.”
There was a foray into house arrest ankle monitors, but a couple of conglomerates moved into that field and the Bob Barker Company got out. Since then, the company has been pumping 10 percent of company profits into research in a hunt for new ventures. So far, the elder Mr. Barker says he has only a few vague ideas. As he put it, “We haven’t found the silver bullet.”
Like Bob Barker, many companies are trying to diversify. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, purchased Correctional Alternatives, which specializes in re-entry programs, like work furloughs and home confinement.
“We have continued to look for opportunities in this service area,” a spokesman for C.C.A. wrote in an email. “It aligns with the needs of our government partners, who are increasingly looking to this type of solution.”
Many at this conference were what could be called platform agnostic, including Norix, which describes itself as the country’s largest maker of prison furniture. Its slogan is “Engineered to endure,” and to illustrate the point, the company ran a looping video at its booth featuring inventive assaults on its furniture. One snippet featured a vinyl armchair being slowly squashed down to 10 inches high by a pneumatic crusher.
When the machine slowly uncrushed the chair, it retook its original shape.
“Sales to prisons are flat to down,” said Sandy Heitman, a senior project manager. “But more people are being put into mental health facilities, and that portion of the business has increased.” The same is true, she added, of halfway houses.
We sat on some Norix furniture, which was the opposite of the austere, steel slabs you see in prison documentaries. Norix still makes that style of product, but it was highlighting a vinyl collection that comes in lively colors that the company calls lime, mango, orchid and reef. The furniture is intended to be more “humanizing,” a word that is prominent on the company’s website.
“This is a more healing environment,” Ms. Heitman said, gesturing to the products.
As she spoke, the video showed a man in a lab coat jackhammering a chair.
The A.C.A. was started as the National Prison Association in 1870 by a group of wardens who thought the justice system needed to emphasize reform and rehabilitation. At its opening session, the group’s chairman lamented that prisons “do not work that reformation in the soul of man that will restore him to society regenerated and reformed.” By 1971, the group had been renamed and its annual conference was more about tear gas and stun guns than the souls of men, as detailed in Jessica Mitford’s book “Kind and Usual Punishment.”
Halcyon days lay ahead. There was a succession of tough-on-crime presidents, including Bill Clinton, who signed a bill in 1994, which he recently renounced, that lengthened sentences. The ’80s and ’90s were good decades for what is ominously referred to as the prison-industrial complex. In 2005, an article in Prison Legal News about an A.C.A. conference described an almost festive atmosphere. At one point, a young woman in a pink top and silk net stockings gave free shoe shines, courtesy of Aramark, the food giant.
That scene is hard to imagine now. Many of the attendees were women. And if your idea of a prison official is lifted from pop culture — say, “Orange Is the New Black” or “The Shawshank Redemption” — you would be disappointed. When attendees were not roaming the exhibitors hall, they sat through a variety of earnest workshops with titles like “College Behind Bars: Too Soft or Very Sensible?” (very sensible, according to two academics from Boston University). In another, “Defining Serious Mental Illness in Corrections,” the audience was split into groups and asked to refine a definition of serious mental illness. My group spent the entire time in a meta-debate about the debate.
During the conference, there was a sign-up sheet for tours of local correctional facilities. This initially sounded ridiculous, the ultimate busman’s holiday, but the tours were overbooked. I snagged a spot for a visit to the nearby Marion County Jail. It started with a group of about 25 people climbing aboard what felt like a maximum-security minibus. Incongruously, Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was playing over loudspeakers.
I asked a prison warden why on earth she wanted to spend her free time in a jail.
“Best practices,” she said, brightly. “See what other places are doing.”
The only moments of the tour that were not dreary and kind of heartbreaking came when I spotted products from vendors in the exhibition hall. That is Norix! That is JonesZylon! Early on, we were introduced to a staff seamstress mending a suicide prevention vest made by Bob Barker.
The Marion County Jail, our guide explained, is at capacity and recently sent some inmates to a nearby site operated by C.C.A., the private incarceration company. This speaks to a big reason that vendors in Indianapolis seem unruffled by talk of prison reform. It hasn’t had a big impact, at least not yet, and it doesn’t seem that it will in the future.
To understand the “not yet” part, consider California, site of the country’s most ambitious inmate reductions. The court-ordered program to ease cramped, triple-bunk conditions started in October 2011. To date, the system’s head count in the 34 facilities covered by the overcrowding litigation has dropped to 111,000, from 144,000.
But the numbers aren’t quite what they seem. The law passed in 2011 mandated that new offenders sentenced for nonviolent or nonsex crimes would serve their time in county jails. The days when a jail was a just a pretrial holding pen are over, and the population in those cells is starting to bulge. Yes, there has been a net decline in the total population of incarcerated people in the state. Just not at a rate that would alarm anyone selling, say, inmate blankets.
“These declines are too small,” said Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, which campaigns for prison reform. “The numbers are trending downward, but slowly and not consistently.”
Mr. Wagner also doubted that prison reform laws knocking around Congress, as well as many states, would reduce the prison population as much as some people thought, because they are focused on drug and nonviolent offenders. As numbers collected by the Urban Institute demonstrate, half of all inmates in state prisons are violent offenders, and state prisons are home to 86 percent of the nation’s inmates.
Yet it is hard to find a politician talking about sentencing reform for violent offenders, a subject that is demonstrably and understandably contentious. In Arkansas, the state eased laws for parolees in 2011, trying to cope with budget issues. Two years later, a man with a history of parole violations and aggravated robbery and theft convictions shot and killed an 18-year-old in Little Rock. The state’s board of corrections swiftly enacted new and tougher standards.
“It changed everything,” said Dina Tyler of Arkansas Community Correction, as she stood outside the exhibition hall. “They started bringing parolees in by the truckload.” This month, state corrections officials reported that 19,055 inmates were under state jurisdiction, the largest number in Arkansas history. The prison population is also rising in dozens of states.
Against this backdrop, the relative serenity of vendors in Indianapolis made sense. Still, if you looked in the right places, the event quietly reflected a change in attitude that should hearten supporters of reform. For years, attendees said, the only people at these conferences talking about rehabilitation or the well-being of inmates were faith-based groups like the Salvation Army. This time, there were workshops on re-entry success stories and alternative sentencing for juveniles, and many others like it.
There were also companies in the exhibition room selling products aimed at improving the lives of inmates. One of them, JPay, markets a gadget that looks like a small iPad ready for a riot. It’s encased in a plastic shell and can survive a 30-foot drop. It doesn’t connect to the Internet, but it does allow monitored access to music and email. The company markets it as an efficient way for inmates to nurture connections with the outside world. Currently, it is in detention facilities in 14 states.
“It keeps them engaged; it keeps them from fighting,” said the company’s head of marketing, Jade Trombetta. “If I send an email that says, ‘I’m going to shank this guy, he’s screwing with me,’ Mom writes back: ‘Don’t. You have one year left. You shank the guy, you’re going to add two years to your sentence.’ That stuff helps.”