Suppliers to the Prison Industry See Continued Signs of a Captive Market ; Thriving Supply Industry Expects No Threat in Push for Sentencing Overhaul

By Segal, David | International New York Times, September 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Suppliers to the Prison Industry See Continued Signs of a Captive Market ; Thriving Supply Industry Expects No Threat in Push for Sentencing Overhaul


Segal, David, International New York Times


As judges and policy makers debate sentencing changes to curb incarceration, those who sell goods to jails and prisons find little cause for concern.

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 America'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 sentencing 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 has underscored time and again. …

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