Jan 122010

Women inmates in a Corrections Corp. of America world

By Beth Connors-Manke

The situation at Otter Creek Correctional Center in Floyd County, KY at once reminds us of the sordid history of female incarceration as well as presents us with a startling glimpse of its present state of affairs.

The Herald-Leader reported on January 8 that Gov. Beshear ordered the removal of some 400 female inmates from the prison due to “widespread allegations of sexual misconduct” by guards at the institution, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. This order came after Hawaii pulled 165 of its female inmates from the prison in July and after the Kentucky Department of Corrections had finished an investigation of 18 alleged cases of sexual misconduct by prison guards.

Part of the continuing privatization of U.S. prisons, Otter Creek is an all-female minimum/medium security facility owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) since 1998. CCA calls itself “the nation’s industry leader of privately-managed corrections solutions for federal, state and local government” and claims to have founded the private corrections industry.

Penal Business in Distressed Regions

The CCA’s website is full of the appalling, but evidently successful, rhetoric that has molded penal corrections into a big business that preys on failing economies and their side effects. Here are some examples:

“With nearly 17,000 corrections professionals, CCA provides high-quality rehabilitation, security, vocational, educational, health care and administrative services to the more than 75,000 residents in our care.” (Services? Residents? Care? Are they talking about prison or a nursing home?)

“A seamless and successful example of the public-private partnership in action, CCA achieves proven, accountable corrections solutions responsive to the needs of today’s national, regional and local correctional climate.” (How much more empty jargon could be packed into this sentence?)

It gets worse. CCA calls the states that contract it a “customer base”—which in the case of Otter Creek is Kentucky and Hawaii. Most shocking, CCA’s website has a page for “Investor Relations” where it quotes its current stock price. (As of January 8: $24.82 per share, down .15 (60%), volume 265,852.)

Reading like tourism material, CCA describes the Otter Creek facility as “located in the town of Wheelwright, Ky., with a population of 1,048 (as of the 2000 census). Wheelwright is a historic coal mining camp town, characterized by coal camp town ‘row houses.’ Wheelwright’s rural beauty is offset by its remoteness, the nearest large city being an hour’s drive from Wheelwright. After the consolidation of two local high schools, the CCA facility is now by far the largest employer in the town.”

My apologies to Wheelwright, but I won’t be visiting soon. A town whose economy shifts from one focused on education to incarceration is a tragedy.

Unfortunately, Wheelwright isn’t alone, as many distressed areas across the country have become convinced that the corrections industry is their best hope. Think of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s ready acceptance of the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the maximum-security (but soon to be supermax) Thomas Correctional Center, 150 miles west of Chicago. The move means cash in the bank for the state because the federal government will buy the prison from Illinois. And, Quinn believes it will provide more jobs.

But what is the cost of trying to prop up dying economies with prisons? What happens when most of a town works at an institution that is dedicated to surveillance and barely controlled violence (by guards and inmates)?

In their excellent documentary Up the Ridge, Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby answer those questions. Simply put: it ruins people. Focused on the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the documentary shows the devastating results of shipping prisoners far from their home states to be caged in the supermax. It also shows how the prison lures residents eager for a steady job but who are often unequipped to deal with the toll the prison environment takes on everyone involved. For both the inmates and the Virginians trying to survive the collapse of the coal industry, the prison chips away at the fragile hold they have on their lives.

History Lesson

With Otter Creek, we see the convergence of the history of women’s penal institutions and the newest evolution in U.S. incarceration. And very little seems to have changed, despite CCA’s smooth and vapid business marketing.

In the mid and late 1800s, the small numbers of female prisoners were often housed at the same institutions as men, although with differential treatment that often left the women locked in congregate rooms with little opportunity for fresh air, exercise, supervision, or protection from sexual exploitation from male guards. In one Illinois institution, women prisoners were relegated to the fourth floor of an administration building where they did the mending and sewing for the male convicts as well as knitting and light manufacturing. They were only allowed out once a year to take a walk.

Then as now, some male prison guards preyed on female inmates. The sexual exploitation of the women in early penitentiaries led to pregnancies and in some cases sexual servitude. Eventually, female prisoners’ presence was deemed so troublesome (they couldn’t be well integrated into a system of mostly men) that women’s prisons were established. Designated for women and run on a daily basis by a female staff, these types of institutions mimicked the practices of labor and discipline from men’s prisons.

The conditions for women prisoners, especially the sexual exploitation, drew the attention of middle class reformers after the Civil War, who promoted the treatment and rehabilitation of misdemeanant prisoners. Believing that women and men should have “separate spheres,” these reformers continued to argue for women’s facilities where female prisoners would be protected from sexual assault by men. They also proposed a new approach to disciplining women.

What these reformers wanted, and what they got for a time, was the ability to detain women of supposedly questionable moral character and retrain them in new women’s reformatories, which were intended to be less harsh than male penitentiaries. In theory, the reformatories were to be more suited to women’s “character”—i.e. more domestic. This reform movement was also motivated by a desire to instill middle-class values in lower-class women whose relatively minor crimes were seen as a violation of social norms.

In the process, these 19th century reformers and their early 20th century successors made the incarceration of women more popular and more prescribed. One of the mechanisms by which the women’s reformatory gained more social control over the lives of working-class women was through the advent of indeterminant sentencing for women who committed petty crimes. Indeterminant sentencing meant that, within time certain parameters, the reformatory administrators got to decide when a woman was released. Depending how well an inmate’s “reformation” was going, matrons could release a prisoner or extend her stay.

Before the reformatory movement, both men and women convicted of fornication, drunkenness, or vagrancy were only briefly jailed and not sent to prison. After the women’s reformatory movement, a double standard was firmly in place; women began going to prison for things that men did not.

Once women’s institutions were established and sentencing laws supported more and longer incarceration of women, the tendency to imprison women increased.

This evolution in women’s imprisonment paved the way for Otter Creek.

Otter Creek Prison Today

A facility with over 650 beds, Otter Creek is the fruit of the U.S. obsession with incarceration. We relegate more people to prisons than most any other nation. We do it for serious crimes; we do it for small offenses. And now corporations and citizens alike make no bones about trying to make money off it. For private companies that want to expand their market, the next logical horizon is more and longer imprisonment of women, a group which has traditionally made up a small portion of the total prison population. Or, in business lingo have been an under-utilized raw material.

That’s what is strange about conceptualizing incarceration as a private business. Where do the prisoners fit into the schema? They’re not the customers—the states are. They’re not the services—those are provided by corporations like CCA. They aren’t even really a product; why would a profit-oriented prison want to reform criminals when criminals are the corporation’s reason for being? It seems that prisoners are simply a raw material that gets processed to make the system go.

The exploitation, both sexual and capitalistic, at Otter Creek isn’t new. The history of U.S. prisons is a long history of punishment, exploitation, and profit—whether that be through convict labor or government contracts. In its newest incarnation, imprisonment is also proudly sold on the stock exchange. That may be even more horrifying than guards who sexually abuse captive women.

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