Commentary Magazine


Going Up the River by Joseph T. Hallinan

Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation
by Joseph T. Hallinan
Random House. 262 pp. $24.95

In the 1990’s, America’s prison population swelled at an unprecedented rate, from just over 1 million to just under 2 million. At the same time, the corrections industiy ballooned into a $38-billion business. Joseph Hallinan, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, thinks these two things are causally related—which of course they are. But he also thinks that the corrections industry is responsible for the growth in the prison population, and is the engine driving it ever upward. In Going Up the River, he sets out to show how.

As its subtitle promises, Going Up the River is cast as a travelogue. Hallinan goes from prison to prison, portraying life both inside the walls and out. The former story is the more familiar, and in Hallinan’s telling it includes the usual awful anecdotes: in the Terrell Unit in Livingston, Texas, an inmate is beaten to death for refusing to pay protection money to a gang; in Stateville Prison in Illinois, another inmate is gang-raped merely for occupying a coveted cell. But it is the latter story—the story of the people who build and maintain and service our new prisons—that interests Hallinan more, and that is less well-known.

He introduces us, for example, to the small town of Beeville, Texas. There, after the closure of a Navy base that had been responsible for much of the local economy, the town’s leaders compensated for the loss by persuading the state to build two prisons that now provide good, steady jobs for over a thousand people. He takes us with him to the county of Fremont, Colorado, whose thirteen prisons give it the right to bill itself proudly as the “Corrections Capital of the World.” And he tours with us the companies all over the U.S. that profit from building and outfitting new prisons. These are not just small subcontractors like Habersham Metal Products, which used to make doors for schools and hospitals but now does almost all of its work for prisons, but businesses like Correctional Medical Services that have sprung up solely to provide health services to inmates and behemoths like AT&T, which bids against others for the $1 billion in long-distance calls made by prisoners every year.

All these enterprises benefit in our present era of longer sentences and an aging prison population. And they are not the only ones who think in terms of profit and loss these days. States and localities are also looking at prisons through green eyeshades. “The bottom line,” says the head of Connecticut’s Department of Corrections, “is that we’re trying to operate in a manner that’s consistent with the business world.” At Wallens Ridge, Virginia, the state rents empty cells to Michigan and Vermont, which do not have enough room to house their own criminals. Oregon now builds prisons with factory spaces attached, and profits from leasing inmate labor to businesses worldwide. Even the prisoners worry about their jobs: “NAFTA’s gonna kill us,” one frets.

The apotheosis of the new regime is the for-profit prison. Two percent of America’s inmates are housed in such facilities, Hallinan notes. Over half of these are run by one company, the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Its founders are now wealthy men.

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Putting his on-site visits to good use, Hallinan writes perceptively about the pluses and minuses of prison life these days for inmates and staff alike, filling his pages with colorful and often telling detail. But when it comes to its central argument, Going Up the River runs dry. “Americans,” Hallinan writes dourly at the end of this book, “have learned to profit from every kind of prison except an empty one.” The fact that both the private and the public sectors have a massive financial stake in today’s arrangements “is enough,” Hallinan says, “to keep prison populations growing.”

But is it? Hallinan never says how, exactly, building more prison cells leads to more arrests or convictions, which are the necessary preconditions for more prisoners. Nor does he entertain a far simpler explanation for today’s expanded prison population: namely, America’s persistent crime problem. That problem is real and not, as Hallinan suggests, the creation of some special interest. In international comparisons, we continue to rate high in overall incidence of crime, and as for violent crime, not to mention the likelihood of violence turning lethal, we are off the charts.

Because the crime problem is real—and because keeping the streets safe is government’s first job—criminal justice is a mainstay of our politics. Since the 1960’s, when Americans were treated to nightly broadcasts of violent unrest, they have listed crime as among their topmost concerns year after year. Politicians do not lack for incentives on the issue of public safety.

For prison populations to grow, more than prisons are needed. Legislators must criminalize new behavior, or require lengthier sentences, or allocate more money for police and prosecutors. While politicians may get campaign contributions from companies with a stake in corrections, the real question is whether AT&T or CCA has ever spent a nickel lobbying for a crime bill. If so, Hallinan offers no proof of it. In general, Going Up the River is devoid of evidence that these companies are doing anything but seizing an opportunity they did not create.

Nor is this the only instance of Hallinan’s failure to understand the relation between markets and reality. Virginia houses inmates from other states not because it wants to stimulate a growth industry but because it overbuilt at a moment (the late 1990’s) when crime and hence incarceration rates had begun to slow. It rents beds, in short, to cut its losses. Contrary to Hallinan, Virginia’s experience proves that even if you build it, they may not come.

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Beneath Hallinan’s fanciful explanation for the expansion of the prison population lies a more fundamental concern: “too many people are in prison for too long.” But he never tells us how many people should be in prison, or for how long, and his objections to long sentences sometimes rest on serious distortions of fact.

It is not true, for example, that, as Hallinan asserts, “drug possession . . . is now punished more severely than all crimes but murder.” During the 1990’s, average prison sentences for both rape and robbery were about three times longer than the average sentence for possessing any type of drug. Moreover, growing numbers of inmates are now overseen by “drug courts,” which use jail time as one part of a broader program aimed at identifying and treating nonviolent offenders who are motivated mainly by their addictions.

Finally, Hallinan says little about what one would have thought was the most salient fact of all—namely, the decade-long decline in crime rates that is itself causally related to the growth in the prison population (other factors being an expanding economy and improved police strategies). But then his confusion over cause and effect seems to be endemic: the New York Times, for example, suggests every few months that somehow the crime rate is falling in spite of, rather than because of, the rising prison population. Fortunately, there is no sign that the average voter—safer today than he was a decade ago—is similarly confused.

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