Money behind bars

January 27, 1995|By Derrick Z. Jackson

PARENTS USED to cringe at the thought of getting a phone call from a kid in prison. Not anymore. It's where you want them to be when they grow up.

"What's up, Pops? How are you? I'm fine. It's a great, great business. Sales are just about doubling every year."

"Hi, Mom and Dad. I'm great. The money flows into the community in the form of rent, groceries and new cars."

"Ma! I already sell $100,000 a year of Dial soap to the New York City jails. Just think what a state like Texas would be worth."

Other than the salutations, the quotes are actual ones from recent newspaper articles. Prisons are the cutting edge of the business world. "Don't miss this chance to tap into the $65 billion local jails market," says the American Correctional Association in its monthly magazine.

"Nobody realized that the average prisoner has $1,200 to $1,500 to spend a year, either in the commissary or by mail order," said Joe Strahl, publisher of Prison Life, two years ago. "Altogether, that is $1 billion."

So, while no one can find money for public schoolchildren, a hurricane of capitalism has hit hardened criminals. Take California. Harsher sentences there for drug offenses are

expected to boost its inmate population from 130,000 to 230,000 in the next five years. This means lots of high-security prison beds at $113,000 a head.

School kids scramble for current books while prison kitchens get $550 milkshake machines. As school buildings disintegrate, prison construction lobbyists hold $6,000 golf parties and pass out fishing derby tickets. Goldman Sachs, Smith Barney, Shearson, Merrill Lynch and Prudential are ready with private, tax-exempt bonds to underwrite prison construction. California's corps of corrections officers, 4,000 in 1980, is now 23,240. The officers union gave $900,000 to Gov. Pete Wilson in his 1990 campaign.

"We call it our Pentagon around here," pro-prison state Sen. Robert Presley said.

But don't blame prison capitalism all on California. A few years ago you could not bribe a small town to take a prison. Now they are fighting to get one. Braham, Minn., pop. 1,200, beat out six other finalists for an $80 million, 800-inmate jail. Braham got the jail by offering a square mile of free land. Braham wants to tap into the prison's 400 jobs and annual payroll of $25 million.

"And if they need more land, I know where I can get another 40 acres real quick," said Braham civic leader Gene Nelson. "The other day, I bumped into a 91-year-old farmer who asked me, 'Gene, when are you going to come and get my land?'"

In Florida, banks put automatic teller machines in low-security jails. In Texas, towns offer country club memberships to prison officials if a prison is located there. AT&T has Inmate Calling. A popcorn company will throw in a free microwave to any prison, anywhere, if it orders 100 cases.

Privately built prisons were unheard of a decade ago, perhaps because it used to be unseemly to profit in a business where you kind of have to hope that people rob, kill and do drugs and get sent to your place. But now, with the nation's prison population equal to that of Dallas, Wall Street says they are an investment. The shares for Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest private prison builder, and second-place competitor Wackenhut were both up last year. Last year, CCA made more than $4 million in profits.

"We didn't have any lobbyists on Capitol Hill" during the crime bill debate, said CCA spokeswoman Peggy Lawrence. "We already have a fairly full plate . . . We know that one way or the other, more funds would have to be found for prisons."

And more people to run them. Parents, do not fret about lack of jobs for your children. Tell them to forget that do-gooder stuff about national youth service, which President Clinton had to downsize to get enacted. Forget teaching in the schools where we invest in children at $5,000 a head.

Go where America shamelessly invests $100,000 a head. They used to say, don't worry kid, you could always get a job at the post office. Now it's prison. Hi, son, how are you? You sold 50 cases of hair spray to a prison? Wonderful. Glad to see you being of such meaningful service to the community.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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