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Articles by Michael Fortino, Ph.D

Open Prison: Lessons from the Past

Open prison is unthinkable today in the United States, though in Scandinavia such institutions are heralded as models of civility and rehabilitation. The U.S. experimented with open prisons back in 1941, which proved there were better ways to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, those lessons were short-lived.

In California, then as now, maximum-security institutions like San Quentin and Folsom were dens of tension and violence. In 1935, the California State Legislature wanted to try something different. A veteran penologist named Kenyon J. Scudder was enlisted to open a new prison at Chino. It would become the California Institution for Men, and the only one of its kind.

Scudder laid down some conditions. He wanted control over the selection and training of staff, and over how much freedom the prisoners would be permitted while incarcerated. To avoid punitive mindsets, he refused to hire staff who had previously worked within the system.

Instead, his jailers (“supervisors”) would have college degrees. They would carry no batons or guns, and weapons would only be a means of last resort. Prisoners would be able to choose what to wear, which jobs they preferred and what to study. Numbers identifying prisoners would ...

California Prison Officials Put Hold on Policy That Led to “Gladiator Fights”

In September 2019, California prison administrators and officials agreed to put a hold on a policy known as “incremental release” after complaints from prisoners and their relatives that it had been used to promote a “divide-and-conquer” strategy at state prisons by orchestrating “gladiator fights” among prisoners, with guards even betting on contestants like a spectator sport in the Roman empire. This has been an ongoing issue at prisons in general and CDCR in particular for the past 30 years and PLN has reported on it repeatedly in that time period.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), “incremental release” is a method for desegregating prisoners by mandating the simultaneous release of rival gang members onto the prison recreational yard – even though staff members are fully aware that the consequences could be a violent confrontation. The resulting “gladiator prisons” allegedly include the California State Prison in Corcoran, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and the Pleasant Valley State Prison, among others throughout the state.

The idea is not new, having first made an appearance in 1990 in the Corcoran Secure Housing Unit, where guards staged fights between black and Latino gangs, taking voyeuristic ...

As Coronavirus Spreads, New York Governor Exploits Prison Labor to Produce Hand Sanitizer

On March 9, with fears of coronavirus spreading, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York held a press conference to announce the debut of a new hand sanitizer called NYS Clean. It will be produced by state prisoners paid approximately 16 cents per hour through CorCraft Products, a division of Correctional Industries.

The prison-based manufacturer uses prison labor to produce myriad products — mattresses, pillows, textiles, glass cleaners, floor cleaners, degreasers, laundry detergents and other consumer and industrial products. Cuomo described NYS Clean’s fragrance to be “like a floral bouquet” as he pulled back a curtain at the press conference to reveal plastic bottles filled with the new product.

“New York can make a one-gallon bottle for $6.10 and a seven-ounce bottle for $1.12 which is much cheaper than the open market,” Cuomo said during the product launch.

Projections released during the press conference suggested that prisoners could generate about 100,000 gallons of the product per day. The announcement was made in the wake of shortages of hand sanitizers and price-gouging scams. One online seller advertised a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for $704.

Critics questioned whether New York was exploiting prisoners in a similar manner. “There ...

GEO Group, Largest Private Prison Contractor, Cranks Up Political Contributions During Trump Years

In August 2016, just after an Obama administration decision to stop contracting with for-profit private prisons sent its stock price tumbling, GEO Group, Inc., the country’s largest private prison contractor, donated $100,000 to a super PAC aligned with then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

Through a wholly owned subsidiary called GEO Corrections Holdings, Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. – whose $2.33 billion in 2018 revenues would have been threatened had Hillary Clinton won and continued Obama’s policy – then gave another $125,000 a week before the election to the Trump-aligned super PAC, known as “Rebuilding America Now” and chaired by Florida’s then-governor and current senator, Rick Scott. When Trump won, GEO Group stock quickly rose 21%, and it gave an additional $250,000 to his inauguration committee.

In February 2017, a month after Trump’s inauguration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding the Obama policy and expanding federal use of private prison contractors instead. Two months later, the administration awarded a $110 million, 10-year federal contract to GEO Group for construction and operation of a 1,000-bed facility in Texas to house undocumented detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the $10 billion federal agency primarily tasked with implementing ...