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PLN Associate Editor Attends ACA Conference

From August 7 to 12, 2009, the American Correctional Association (ACA) held its 139th Congress of Correction at the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The theme of the conference was “Effective Re-entry is Good Public Safety.”

Founded in 1870 as the National Prison Association, the ACA is a non-government membership organization for corrections officials that advocates for criminal justice-related issues and policies. The ACA also provides accreditation for correctional facilities or agencies that meet its self-proclaimed standards. One of the ACA’s stated goals is to “Lead and serve as the voice for corrections.”

PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann attended the ACA’s last convention in Nashville, in 2006, to report on the event as a member of the media. When he contacted the ACA to likewise attend the August 2009 conference, however, he was rebuffed. Friedmann was informed by ACA Director of Government & Public Affairs Eric L. Schultz, Jr. that “To cover the conference and any events associated with the conference you’ll need to be registered as an attendee.” In other words, to report on the ACA conference as a member of the press, Friedmann would have to register like any other conference-goer – at a minimum cost of $140 per day.

PLN declined to pay for the privilege of covering the conference; it was later learned that the ACA had allowed a local news agency to cover the event for free. In a phone conversation, Schultz said the ACA had restricted its media policy because they had been “burned” in the past by negative coverage. In response, Friedmann noted that might have “something to do with how you treat members of the press.”

Fortunately, Friedmann was able to attend through another organization that he works with, the Private Corrections Institute (PCI), which had an exhibitor’s booth at the conference. PCI opposes the privatization of correctional services and was the only group at the ACA event speaking out against private prisons. Which isn’t surprising, considering that many private prison companies were sponsoring the conference – including Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), GEO Group, Keefe Group (which operates prison commissaries), Wexford Health Sources, Correctional Medical Services and Prison Health Services.

Several private prison officials stopped by the PCI booth, which was manned by Friedmann and PCI field organizer Frank Smith, to argue the merits of privatization. While they were doing so, videos of major riots at private prisons were playing on two LCD monitors in the background, lending a certain sense of irony to the discussion.

In terms of professional development, the conference included a number of seminars on corrections and criminal justice-related topics. Some of the sessions were fairly straightforward, such as “Care of Aging and Infirm Inmates” and “Female Offender Management.” Others catered to private prison firms, including “The Corporate Pathway to Addressing Retention and Creating a Great Place to Work.” The seminar entitled “Tightening the Belt on Food Costs” was moderated by a representative from Aramark, the for-profit company that provides cut-rate correctional food services. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.36].

As at most ACA conferences, though, the main attraction was the exhibitor’s hall, where companies display a wide variety of corrections-related wares ranging from custom transport vehicles and restraint devices to prison construction services, perimeter fencing, suicide smocks and unbreakable food trays. Hot items this year included cell phone detection equipment.

Noticeably lacking among the dozens of vendors hawking razor wire and prison and jail management services, how-ever, were resources in line with the conference’s theme of re-entry. Only a small handful of exhibitors provided products or services intended to address re-entry issues for released prisoners. One of those companies now offers a re-entry manual, Starting Out! The Complete Re-entry Handbook, for sale through PLN.

While the ACA promotes itself as an independent advocate for corrections professionals, it is influenced by funding from the private and public prison industry and income generated from providing accreditations. Further, there is no over-sight over the ACA’s accreditation process except by the organization itself. In the past, abusive conditions have been found at ACA-accredited prisons and jails. This may be because ACA standards are based on whether correctional facilities meet specified requirements and have certain policies – not necessarily on whether those policies are actually fol-lowed.

The ACA sometimes waives a facility’s failure to meet standards, and routinely allows prisons or jails that fail initial accreditation audits to re-apply. ACA officials have previously refused to reveal the number of correctional facilities that have failed audits or had their accreditation status revoked. According to its Form 990, in 2007 the ACA received over $3.8 million in accreditation fees alone. Which amounts to a taxpayer subsidized prisoncrat lobby.

PLN has reported on the ACA for over a decade, noting the organization’s ineffectiveness at providing oversight of prisons and jails, as well as the ACA’s receipt of funding by the private prison industry and its de facto “sale” of accreditations to correctional agencies, both public and private. [See: PLN, Sept. 2005, pp.1 and 7; Sept. 2004, p.22; April 1995, p.19].

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