Source: The Atlantic Monthly 
Copyright: 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company
Pubdate: Dec 1998
Volume: 282, No. 6; pages 51 - 77 
Author: Eric Schlosser
Note: This is part 1 of 3.


Correctional Officials See Danger In Prison Overcrowding. Others See
Opportunity. The Nearly Two Million Americans Behind Bars -- The Majority
Of Them Nonviolent Offenders -- Mean Jobs For Depressed Regions And
Windfalls For Profiteers

IN the hills east of Sacramento, California, Folsom State Prison stands
beside a man-made lake, surrounded by granite walls built by inmate
laborers. The gun towers have peaked roofs and Gothic stonework that give
the prison the appearance of a medieval fortress, ominous and forbidding.
For more than a century Folsom and San Quentin were the end of the line in
California's penal system; they were the state's only maximum-security
penitentiaries. During the early 1980s, as California's inmate population
began to climb, Folsom became dangerously overcrowded. Fights between
inmates ended in stabbings six or seven times a week. The poor sight lines
within the old cellblocks put correctional officers at enormous risk. From
1984 to 1994 California built eight new maximum-security (Level 4)
facilities. The bullet holes in the ceilings of Folsom's cellblocks, left
by warning shots, are the last traces of the prison's violent years. Today
Folsom is a medium-security (Level 2) facility, filled with the kind of
inmates that correctional officers consider "soft." No one has been stabbed
to death at Folsom in almost four years. Among its roughly 3,800 inmates
are some 500 murderers, 250 child molesters, and an assortment of rapists,
armed robbers, drug dealers, burglars, and petty thieves. The cells in
Housing Unit 1 are stacked five stories high, like boxes in a vast
warehouse; glimpses of hands and arms and faces, of flickering TV screens,
are visible between the steel bars. Folsom now houses almost twice as many
inmates as it was designed to hold. The machine shop at the prison, run by
inmates, manufactures steel frames for double bunks -- and triple bunks --
in addition to license plates.

Less than a quarter mile from the old prison is the California State Prison
at Sacramento, known as "New Folsom," which houses about 3,000 Level 4
inmates. They are the real hard cases: violent predators, gang members,
prisoners unable to "program" well at other facilities, unable to obey the
rules. New Folsom does not have granite walls. It has a "death-wire
electrified fence," set between two ordinary chain-link fences, that
administers a lethal dose of 5,100 volts at the slightest touch. The
architecture of New Folsom is stark and futuristic. The buildings have
smooth gray concrete facades, unadorned except for narrow slits for cell
windows. Approximately a third of the inmates are serving life sentences;
more than a thousand have committed at least one murder, nearly 500 have
committed armed robbery, and nearly 200 have committed assault with a
deadly weapon.

Inmates were placed in New Folsom while it was still under construction.
The prison was badly overcrowded even before it was finished, in 1987. It
has at times housed more than 300 inmates in its gymnasiums. New Folsom --
like old Folsom, and like the rest of the California prison system -- now
operates at roughly double its intended capacity. Over the past twenty
years the State of California has built twenty-one new prisons, added
thousands of cells to existing facilities, and increased its inmate
population eightfold. Nonviolent offenders have been responsible for most
of that increase. The number of drug offenders imprisoned in the state
today is more than twice the number of inmates who were imprisoned for all
crimes in 1978. California now has the biggest prison system in the Western
industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of
Prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do
France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands
combined. The California Department of Corrections predicts that at the
current rate of expansion, barring a court order that forces a release of
prisoners, it will run out of room eighteen months from now. Simply to
remain at double capacity the state will need to open at least one new
prison a year, every year, for the foreseeable future.

Today the United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars:
about 100,000 in federal custody, 1.1 million in state custody, and 600,000
in local jails. Prisons hold inmates convicted of federal or state crimes;
jails hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences. The United
States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world --
perhaps half a million more than Communist China. The American inmate
population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine
the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and
Miami behind bars. "We have embarked on a great social experiment," says
Marc Mauer, the author of the upcoming book The Race to Incarcerate. "No
other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own
citizens for the purpose of crime control." The prison boom in the United
States is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the first three quarters of this
century the nation's incarceration rate remained relatively stable, at
about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people. In the mid-1970s the
rate began to climb, doubling in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The
rate is now 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000.
During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have
been built in the United States. Nevertheless, America's prisons are more
overcrowded now than when the building spree began, and the inmate
population continues to increase by 50,000 to 80,000 people a year.

The economist and legal scholar Michael K. Block, who believes that
American sentencing policies are still not harsh enough, offers a
straightforward explanation for why the United States has lately
incarcerated so many people: "There are too many prisoners because there
are too many criminals committing too many crimes." Indeed, the nation's
prisons now hold about 150,000 armed robbers, 125,000 murderers, and
100,000 sex offenders -- enough violent criminals to populate a
medium-sized city such as Cincinnati. Few would dispute the need to remove
these people from society. The level of violent crime in the United States,
despite recent declines, still dwarfs that in Western Europe. But the
proportion of offenders being sent to prison each year for violent crimes
has actually fallen during the prison boom. In 1980 about half the people
entering state prison were violent offenders; in 1995 less than a third had
been convicted of a violent crime. The enormous increase in America's
inmate population can be explained in large part by the sentences given to
people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Crimes that in other
countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment
- -- or would not be considered crimes at all -- in the United States now
lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment. "No
matter what the question has been in American criminal justice over the
last generation," says Franklin E. Zimring, the director of the Earl Warren
Legal Institute, "prison has been the answer."

ON January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell
address to issue a warning, as the United States continued its cold war
with the Soviet Union. "In the councils of government," Eisenhower said,
"we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether
sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Eisenhower had
grown concerned about this new threat to democracy during the 1960
campaign, when fears of a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union were whipped
up by politicians, the press, and defense contractors hoping for increased
military spending. Eisenhower knew that no missile gap existed and that
fear of one might lead to a costly, unnecessary response. "The potential
for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,"
Eisenhower warned. "We should take nothing for granted."

Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed
a prison-industrial complex -- a set of bureaucratic, political, and
economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment,
regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a
conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed
doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison
construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is
composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the
fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have
become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard
the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on
American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials
whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991
the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20
percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50
percent. The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger,
a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in
1996, explains the thinking: "If crime is going up, then we need to build
more prisons; and if crime is going down, it's because we built more
prisons -- and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down
even lower."

The raw material of the prison-industrial complex is its inmates: the poor,
the homeless, and the mentally ill; drug dealers, drug addicts, alcoholics,
and a wide assortment of violent sociopaths. About 70 percent of the prison
inmates in the United States are illiterate. Perhaps 200,000 of the
country's inmates suffer from a serious mental illness. A generation ago
such people were handled primarily by the mental-health, not the
criminal-justice, system. Sixty to 80 percent of the American inmate
population has a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile, the number of
drug-treatment slots in American prisons has declined by more than half
since 1993. Drug treatment is now available to just one in ten of the
inmates who need it. Among those arrested for violent crimes, the
proportion who are African-American men has changed little over the past
twenty years. Among those arrested for drug crimes, the proportion who are
African-American men has tripled. Although the prevalence of illegal drug
use among white men is approximately the same as that among black men,
black men are five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense. As a
result, about half the inmates in the United States are African-American.
One out of every fourteen black men is now in prison or jail. One out of
every four black men is likely to be imprisoned at some point during his
lifetime. The number of women sentenced to a year or more of prison has
grown twelvefold since 1970. Of the 80,000 women now imprisoned, about 70
percent are nonviolent offenders. About 75 percent have children.

The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and
institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is
corrupting the nation's criminal-justice system, replacing notions of
public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected
officials to pass "tough-on-crime" legislation -- combined with their
unwillingness to disclose the true costs of these laws -- has encouraged
all sorts of financial improprieties. The inner workings of the
prison-industrial complex can be observed in the state of New York, where
the prison boom started, transforming the economy of an entire region; in
Texas and Tennessee, where private prison companies have thrived; and in
California, where the correctional trends of the past two decades have
converged and reached extremes. In the realm of psychology a complex is an
overreaction to some perceived threat. Eisenhower no doubt had that meaning
in mind when, during his farewell address, he urged the nation to resist "a
recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could
become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties."


THE origins of the prison-industrial complex can be dated to January of
1973. Senator Barry Goldwater had used the fear of crime to attract white
middle-class voters a decade earlier, and Richard Nixon had revived the
theme during the 1968 presidential campaign, but little that was concrete
emerged from their demands for law and order. On the contrary, Congress
voted decisively in 1970 to eliminate almost all federal mandatory-minimum
sentences for drug offenders. Leading members of both political parties
applauded the move. Mainstream opinion considered drug addiction to be
largely a public-health problem, not an issue for the criminal courts. The
Federal Bureau of Prisons was preparing to close large penitentiaries in
Georgia, Kansas, and Washington. From 1963 to 1972 the number of inmates in
California had declined by more than a fourth, despite the state's growing
population. The number of inmates in New York had fallen to its lowest
level since at least 1950. Prisons were widely viewed as a barbaric and
ineffective means of controlling deviant behavior. Then, on January 3,
1973, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, gave a State of the
State address demanding that every illegal-drug dealer be punished with a
mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.

Rockefeller was a liberal Republican who for a dozen years had governed New
York with policies more closely resembling those of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt than those of Ronald Reagan. He had been booed at the 1964
Republican Convention by conservative delegates; he still harbored grand
political ambitions; and President Nixon would be ineligible for a third
term in 1976. Rockefeller demonstrated his newfound commitment to law and
order in 1971, when he crushed the Attica prison uprising. By proposing the
harshest drug laws in the United States, he took the lead on an issue that
would soon dominate the nation's political agenda. In his State of the
State address Rockefeller argued not only that all drug dealers should be
imprisoned for life but also that plea-bargaining should be forbidden in
such cases and that even juvenile offenders should receive life sentences.

The Rockefeller drug laws, enacted a few months later by the state
legislature, were somewhat less draconian: the penalty for possessing four
ounces of an illegal drug, or for selling two ounces, was a mandatory
prison term of fifteen years to life. The legislation also included a
provision that established a mandatory prison sentence for many second
felony convictions, regardless of the crime or its circumstances.
Rockefeller proudly declared that his state had enacted "the toughest
anti-drug program in the country." Other states eventually followed New
York's example, enacting strict mandatory-minimum sentences for drug
offenses. A liberal Democrat, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, led the
campaign to revive federal mandatory minimums, which were incorporated in
the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Nelson Rockefeller had set in motion a
profound shift in American sentencing policy, but he never had to deal with
the consequences. Nineteen months after the passage of his drug laws
Rockefeller became Vice President of the United States.

When Mario Cuomo was first elected governor of New York, in 1982, he
confronted some difficult choices. The state government was in a precarious
fiscal condition, the inmate population had more than doubled since the
passage of the Rockefeller drug laws, and the prison system had grown
dangerously overcrowded. A week after Cuomo took office, inmates rioted at
Sing Sing, an aging prison in Ossining. Cuomo was an old-fashioned liberal
who opposed mandatory-minimum drug sentences. But the national mood seemed
to be calling for harsher drug laws, not sympathy for drug addicts.
President Reagan had just launched the War on Drugs; it was an inauspicious
moment to buck the tide.

Unable to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, Cuomo decided to build more
prisons. The rhetoric of the drug war, however, was proving more popular
than the financial reality. In 1981 New York's voters had defeated a $500
million bond issue for new prison construction. Cuomo searched for an
alternate source of financing, and decided to use the state's Urban
Development Corporation to build prisons. The corporation was a public
agency that had been created in 1968 to build housing for the poor. Despite
strong opposition from upstate Republicans, among others, it had been
legislated into existence on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral,
to honor his legacy. The corporation was an attractive means of financing
prison construction for one simple reason: it had the authority to issue
state bonds without gaining approval from the voters.

Over the next twelve years Mario Cuomo added more prison beds in New York
than all the previous governors in the state's history combined. Their
total cost, including interest, would eventually reach about $7 billion.
Cuomo's use of the Urban Development Corporation drew criticism from both
liberals and conservatives. Robert Gangi, the head of the Correctional
Association of New York, argued that Cuomo was building altogether the
wrong sort of housing for the poor. The state comptroller, Edward V. Regan,
a Republican, said that Cuomo was defying the wishes of the electorate,
which had voted not to spend money on prisons, and that his financing
scheme was costly and improper. Bonds issued by the Urban Development
Corporation carried a higher rate of interest than the state's
general-issue bonds.

Legally the state's new prisons were owned by the Urban Development
Corporation and leased to the Department of Corrections. In 1991, as New
York struggled to emerge from a recession, Governor Cuomo "sold" Attica
prison to the corporation for $200 million and used the money to fill gaps
in the state budget. In order to buy the prison, the corporation had to
issue more bonds. The entire transaction could eventually cost New York
State about $700 million.

The New York prison boom was a source of embarrassment for Mario Cuomo. At
times he publicly called it "stupid," an immoral waste of scarce state
monies, an obligation forced on him by the dictates of the law. But it was
also a source of political capital. Cuomo strongly opposed the death
penalty, and building new prisons shielded him from Republican charges of
being soft on crime. In his 1987 State of the State address, having just
been re-elected by a landslide, Cuomo boasted of having put nearly 10,000
"dangerous felons" behind bars. The inmate population of New York's prisons
had indeed grown by roughly that number during his first term in office.
But the proportion of offenders being incarcerated for violent crimes had
fallen from 63 percent to 52 percent during those four years. In 1987 New
York State sent almost a thousand fewer violent offenders to prison than it
had in 1983. Despite having the "toughest anti-drug program" and one of the
fastest-growing inmate populations in the nation, New York was hit hard by
the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the violent crime that accompanied it.
From 1983 to 1990 the state's inmate population almost doubled -- and yet
during that same period the violent-crime rate rose 24 percent. Between the
passage of the Rockefeller drug laws and the time Cuomo left office, in
January of 1995, New York's inmate population increased almost fivefold.
And the state's prison system was more overcrowded than it had been when
the prison boom began.

BY using an unorthodox means of financing prison construction, Mario Cuomo
turned the Urban Development Corporation into a rural development
corporation that invested billions of dollars in upstate New York. Although
roughly 80 percent of the state's inmates came from New York City and its
suburbs, high real-estate prices and opposition from community groups made
it difficult to build correctional facilities there. Cuomo needed somewhere
to put his new prisons; he formed a close working relationship with the
state senator Ronald B. Stafford, a conservative Republican whose rural,
Adirondack district included six counties extending from Lake George to the
Canadian border. "Any time there's an extra prison," a Cuomo appointee told
Newsdayin 1990, "Ron Stafford will take it."

Stafford had represented this district, known as the North Country, for
more than two decades. Orphaned as a child, he had been adopted by a family
in the upstate town of Dannemora. The main street of the town was dominated
by the massive stone wall around Clinton, a notorious maximum-security
prison. His adoptive father was a correctional officer at Clinton, and
Stafford spent much of his childhood within the prison's walls. He
developed great respect for correctional officers, and viewed their
profession as an honorable one; he believed that prisons could give his
district a real economic boost. Towns in the North Country soon competed
with one another to attract new prisons. The Republican Party controlled
the state senate, and prison construction became part of the political give
and take with the Cuomo administration. Of the twenty-nine correctional
facilities authorized during the Cuomo years, twenty-eight were built in
upstate districts represented by Republican senators.

When most people think of New York, they picture Manhattan. In fact, two
thirds of the state's counties are classified as rural. Perhaps no other
region in the United States has so wide a gulf between its urban and rural
populations. People in the North Country -- which includes the Adirondack
State Park, one of the nation's largest wilderness areas -- tend to be
politically conservative, taciturn, fond of the outdoors, and white. New
York City and the North Country have very little in common. One thing they
do share, however, is a high rate of poverty.

Twenty-five years ago the North Country had two prisons; now it has
eighteen correctional facilities, and a nineteenth is under construction.
They run the gamut from maximum-security prisons to drug-treatment centers
and boot camps. One of the first new facilities to open was Ray Brook, a
federal prison that occupies the former Olympic Village at Lake Placid.
Other prisons have opened in abandoned factories and sanatoriums. For the
most part North Country prisons are tucked away, hidden by trees, nearly
invisible amid the vastness and beauty of the Adirondacks. But they have
brought profound change. Roughly one out of every twenty people in the
North Country is a prisoner. The town of Dannemora now has more inmates
than inhabitants.

The traditional anchors of the North Country economy -- mining, logging,
dairy farms, and manufacturing -- have been in decline for years. Tourism
flourishes in most towns during the summer months. According to Ram Chugh,
the director of the Rural Services Institute at the State University of New
York at Potsdam, the North Country's per capita income has long been about
40 percent lower than the state's average per capita income. The prison
boom has provided a huge infusion of state money to an economically
depressed region -- one of the largest direct investments the state has
ever made there. In addition to the more than $1.5 billion spent to build
correctional facilities, the prisons now bring the North Country about $425
million in annual payroll and operating expenditures. That represents an
annual subsidy to the region of more than $1,000 per person. The economic
impact of the prisons extends beyond the wages they pay and the local
services they buy. Prisons are labor-intensive institutions, offering
year-round employment. They are recession-proof, usually expanding in size
during hard times. And they are nonpolluting -- an important consideration
in rural areas where other forms of development are often blocked by
environmentalists. Prisons have brought a stable, steady income to a region
long accustomed to a highly seasonal, uncertain economy.

Anne Mackinnon, who grew up in the North Country and wrote about its recent
emergence as New York's "Siberia" for Adirondack Life magazine, says the
prison boom has had an enormous effect on the local culture. Just about
everyone now seems to have at least one relative who works in corrections.
Prison jobs have slowed the exodus from small towns, by allowing young
people to remain in the area. The average salary of a correctional officer
in New York State is about $36,000 -- more than 50 percent higher than the
typical salary in the North Country. The job brings health benefits and a
pension. Working as a correctional officer is one of the few ways that men
and women without college degrees can enjoy a solid middle-class life
there. Although prison jobs are stressful and dangerous, they are viewed as
a means of preserving local communities. So many North Country residents
have become correctional officers over the past decade that those just
starting out must work for years in prisons downstate, patiently waiting
for a job opening at one of the facilities in the Adirondacks.

WHILE many families in the north await the return of sons and daughters
slowly earning seniority downstate, families in New York City must endure
the absence of loved ones who seem to have been not just imprisoned for
their crimes but exiled as well. Every Friday night about 800 people,
mostly women and children, almost all of them African-American or Latino,
gather at Columbus Circle, in Manhattan, and board buses for the north. The
buses leave through the night and arrive in time for visiting hours on
Saturday. Operation Prison Gap, which runs the service, was founded by an
ex-convict named Ray Simmons who had been imprisoned upstate and knew how
hard it was for the families of inmates to arrange visits. When the company
started, in 1973, it carried passengers in a single van. Now it charters
thirty-five buses and vans on a typical weekend and a larger number on
special occasions, such as Father's Day and Thanksgiving. Ray Simmons's
brother Tyrone, who heads the company, says that despite the rising inmate
population, ridership has fallen a bit over the past few years. The
inconvenience and expense of the long bus trips take their toll. One
customer, however, has for fifteen years faithfully visited her son in
Comstock every weekend. In 1996 she stopped appearing at Columbus Circle;
her son had been released. Six months later he was convicted of another
violent crime and sent back to the same prison. The woman, now in her
seventies, still boards the 2:00 A.M. bus for Comstock every weekend.
Simmons gives her a discount, charging her $15 -- the same price she paid
on her first trip, in 1983.

The Bare Hill Correctional Facility sits near the town of Malone, fifteen
miles south of the Canadian border. The Franklin Correctional Facility is a
quarter of a mile down the road, and the future site of a new
maximum-security prison is next door. Bare Hill is one of the "cookie
cutter" medium-security prisons that were built during the Cuomo
administration. The state has built fourteen other prisons exactly like it
- -- a form of penal mass production that saves a good deal of money. Most of
the inmates at Bare Hill are housed in dormitories, not cells. The
dormitories were designed to hold about fifty inmates, each with his own
small cubicle and bunk. In 1990, two years after the prison opened,
double-bunking was introduced as a "temporary" measure to ease the
overcrowding in county jails, which were holding an overflow of state
inmates. Eight years later every dormitory at Bare Hill houses sixty
inmates, a third of them double-bunked. About 90 percent of the inmates
come from New York City or one of its suburbs, eight hours away; about 80
percent are African-American or Latino. The low walls of the cubicles,
which allow little privacy, are covered with family photographs, pinups,
religious postcards. Twenty-four hours a day a correctional officer sits
alone at a desk on a platform that overlooks the dorm.

The superintendent of Bare Hill, Peter J. Lacy, is genial and gray-haired,
tall and dignified in his striped tie, flannels, and blue blazer. His
office feels light and cheery. Lacy began his career, in 1955, as a
correctional officer at Dannemora; he wore a uniform for twenty-five years,
and in the 1980s headed a special unit that handled prison emergencies and
riots. He later served as an assistant commissioner of the New York
Department of Corrections. One of his sons is now a lieutenant at a
downstate prison. As Superintendent Lacy walks through the prison grounds,
he seems like a captain surveying his ship, rightly proud of its upkeep,
familiar with every detail. The lawns are neatly trimmed, the buildings are
well maintained, and the red-brick dorms would not seem out of place on a
college campus, except for the bars in the windows. There is nothing
oppressive about the physical appearance of Bare Hill, about the ball
fields with pine trees in the background, about the brightly colored murals
and rustic stencils on the walls, about the classrooms where instructors
teach inmates how to read, how to write, how to draw a blueprint, how to
lay bricks, how to obtain a Social Security card, how to deal with their
anger. For many inmates Bare Hill is the neatest, cleanest, most
well-ordered place they will ever live. As Lacy passes a group of inmates
leaving their dorms for class, the inmates nod their heads in
acknowledgment, and a few of them say, "Hello, sir." And every so often a
young inmate gives Lacy a look filled with a hatred so pure and so palpable
that it would burn Bare Hill to the ground, if only it could.

(continued in part 2)
- ---
Checked-by: Richard Lake