Going Up the River:

When private prisons first came on the scene in the ’80s, their promoters hailed them as a money-saving panacea for the intractable problem of overcrowding. Prisoners’ advocates wary of executives putting profits before public safety and humane conditions protested privatization from the beginning. But faced with budgetary pressures and court orders to reduce overcrowding, corrections officials across the country, including in the District of Columbia, began turning their inmates over to private companies, such as the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corp. In 1980, there were no private prisons. By 2000, there were more than 100, containing 76,000 inmates, or about 4 percent of the country’s prison and jail populations.

The results of privatization have been mixed at best. Conditions in some private prisons have turned out to be little better than those in the institutions they replaced. And in many states, any savings to taxpayers have been minimal.

Yet private prisons have continued to be built across the country, even as the crime rate has fallen off sharply. In Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joseph T. Hallinan, who covers the criminal-justice system for the Wall Street Journal, argues that the private-prison industry has taken on a life of its own, propelled more by desire for profits than concern for public safety or the rehabilitation of inmates.

Hallinan traces the roots of today’s “supermax” prisons and record incarceration rates to the bleak solitude of the cells of the Quaker-devised Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The Quakers didn’t believe in the corporal punishments commonly doled out in the early 1800s and sought to give the wayward a place to work, eat, and pray alone, a place where they might reflect on their misdeeds and become penitent. The cells in the prison, which opened in 1829, had amenities unheard of until then, such as central heating, skylights, and private exercise yards. As a result, Eastern State became a model prison, attracting visitors from all over the world, including Charles Dickens—who, despite these comforts, found the conditions abominable.

“I never saw or heard of any kind of misery that impressed me more than the wretchedness of this man,” Dickens noted after observing one of Eastern’s inmates. Eastern State might have been humane for its day, but it was still a prison, and many of its inhabitants, rather than growing penitent in their isolation, lost their minds.

In modern times, Hallinan shows us inmates risking death by performing in “prison rodeos” for the chance to make some cash. And he details a bloody beat-down of about a dozen inmates at the hands of guards at a Georgia state prison in 1996 that was followed by a celebratory chicken dinner for the officers. With anecdotes like these, he gracefully underscores the fact that prisons are fundamentally dehumanizing places—a point often forgotten in the rush over the past 20 years to put more people behind bars, for longer sentences, and in harsher conditions.

Indeed, the movement away from rehabilitation toward tougher punishment of criminals lies at the heart of the latest prison boom. In 1970, a Harris poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought the primary purpose of prisons should be rehabilitation. By 1995, that number had dropped to 26 percent. Sentencing laws followed public opinion. In addition to several recent court decisions, Hallinan cites the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished parole for all federal crimes, and the establishment of mandatory minimum sentences for even the most minor drug offenses in 1986 as causes of the surge in the nation’s federal prison population.

But a burgeoning inmate population alone didn’t fuel the prison-building boom. One of Hallinan’s central arguments is that increasing numbers of people behind bars, combined with the decline in blue-collar jobs, especially in rural areas, really spurred the rapid expansion of prison construction. He describes his travels to small towns such as Wallens Ridge, Va., where politicians such as Gov. Jim Gilmore regard prisons not so much a critical part of the criminal-justice system as proof that “[w]e can create jobs and prosperity and protect people while we’re doing it.”

The result of this profit-minded approach to corrections, Hallinan contends, is that inmates are now “the raw material” of a multi-billion-dollar industry. They fill the beds that private prisons reap hundreds of millions of dollars a year to supply. Their presence brings jobs to remote areas abandoned by industries such as coal mining and manufacturing. Inmates are also a captive market for the likes of AT&T and Procter & Gamble, which sells grooming products in prison commissaries.

And in prisons certified by the federal government under its Prison Industry Enhancement program, inmates are increasingly a cheap and industrious labor force for everyone from chicken-egg processors to telemarketers to brand-name clothing makers such as Eddie Bauer. At the Boomsma chicken farm in Clarion, Iowa, about 92 miles north of Des Moines, Hallinan interviewed inmates such as Ricardo Herrera, who is serving two five-year terms for drunk driving and delivery of marijuana. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, including Christmas, Herrera cleans feathers and manure produced by 100,000 chickens. He makes about $6 an hour, of which he gets to keep about $1.20. “It’s a little dusty and dirty,” says Herrera, “but I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Hallinan argues that the mere existence of for-profit prisons has had a damaging effect on prisons in general, infecting public, nonprofit institutions with what, in terms of both public safety and rehabilitation, is a counterproductive, bottom-line ethos. Prison administrators can now hone their cost-cutting skills in the public system, then cash them in the private system. At the height of the prison boom a few years ago, former prison wardens were joining the ranks of millionaires. Prison profits have since fallen off sharply, as falling crime rates—which declined for eight years straight before leveling off last year—have finally dampened demand for more cells. But the transformation of prisons from sites of rehabilitation to simply places of incarceration is now complete. Prisons, whether they are public or private, are now places where budgets and share prices often matter more than recidivism rates.

For Hallinan, the facility that most purely embodies these principles of profit over rehabilitation and even common sense is the supermax prison. In theory, supermaxes are for “the worst of the worst,” inmates who have been especially difficult or are serving long sentences. But in practice, there are not always enough such inmates to go around, and mentally ill inmates as well as those with shorter sentences sometimes end up there.

These high-tech human warehouses, he notes, are not unlike Eastern State more than 100 years ago. And they produce similar results.

Hallinan gets a glimpse of the fear and sensory deprivation the inmates must endure in supermaxes during his visit to the one in Wallens Ridge. There, inmates are kept in isolation, typically for 23 hours a day. They are allowed one “holy book” and some personal effects such as magazines and letters. For recreation, they get only a concrete exercise yard that Hallinan describes as “simply a larger version of their own cell, minus the toilet and roof.”

Though supermaxes are still relatively new, it’s already well-established that such conditions exacerbate mental illness. Wardens of supermaxes, as is typical of the way prisons are run today, address this problem with “cell-front counseling,” a solution that is more economical than it is effective. Counselors speak to troubled inmates through a slit less than an inch wide that runs the length of each cell door. Hallinan cites Chase Riveland, a former director of prisons in Colorado and Washington state who studied supermaxes and cell-front counseling for the National Institute of Corrections, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, who says that cell-front counseling is little more than window dressing, providing the appearance of treatment but not the reality.

Such details are telling and disturbing, and they are the main reason to keep the pages turning. Overall, however, Going Up the River suffers from Hallinan’s wide-angle, travelogue approach. The book is populated with the briefest of character sketches of the people he encounters along the way, from inmates to small-town officials. And he often seems more enthralled with the inner workings of the prison industry than he is with delving deeply into the implications of his thesis, which is that we as a society have essentially given up hope of reforming anyone.

At times, Hallinan also glosses over contradictions inherent in his arguments. He seems to mourn the brief period from the teens to the ’60s in which rehabilitation and reducing recidivism took precedence over the bottom line in both the state and federal prison systems. Yet he homes in on prison industries, for example, as exploitative—which no doubt they are—without acknowledging that prison employment can also serve the goal of rehabilitation by helping prepare inmates for re-entry into society.

Nonetheless, Hallinan does a good job of documenting the absurdities and cruelties of modern prison life. He repeats many of the arguments long made by opponents of private prisons—and manages to do so without sounding polemical. The result is a solid primer on the makings and workings of America’s new prison-industrial complex. CP