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Week of 5.9.08

Reporter's Notebook: Inside a Private Prison

Maria Hinojosa with the prison warden at the Crowley Correctional Facility in Colorado.
Maria Hinojosa with the prison warden at the Crowley Correctional Facility in Colorado.
Prisoners and prisons are generally people and institutions that we, as reporters, are kept far away from. So I see it as a privilege, as well as a great responsibility, to get the story out about what is an invisible - and sadly growing - population in America.

I've been to quite a few prisons, both in the United States and Latin America. Before visiting a prison I always need time to prepare myself mentally for what lies ahead. It's hard to see people living behind bars.

For this piece, I was going to see a private prison -- one that operates with the goal of making profits. As I read up on the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Colorado I found out how lucrative the business of prisons can be. The prison is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, which had total revenues of nearly $1.5 billion in 2007. According to a chart in their most recent annual report, they expect revenues will continue to rise. In fact, when I walked into Crowley, a medium security prison, I immediately saw a sign that shows how their NYSE stock is performing.

At the prison, there were no signs of the 2004 prison riot, which left more than a dozen inmates injured and caused extensive damage to five living units. In fact, Crowley had facilities for prisoners that were better than anything I had seen before. Computers, schoolbooks and attentive students filled one classroom. There was a huge gym, complete with aerobics and yoga classes, lots of open space for prisoners to stretch out, as well as a program to rescue greyhound dogs. They had a partnership with Habitat for Humanity for an inmate carpentry program. And there was a beautiful greenhouse there, with ferns and flowers that were well tended by the prisoners.

Maria checks out a screen from the computerized prison monitoring system.
Maria checks out a screen from the computerized prison monitoring system.
Later, we went to one of the prison's 'pods', essentially a wing of the prison, and I spoke to a young security officer there. She showed me a screen from the computerized prison monitoring system. On the screen the prison doors were open, when in reality the doors were shut. "It's messed up," she told me.

Seeing the prisoners at Crowley made me wonder what these men had done that made them end up behind bars. It recently came out that one in every hundred people in America is behind bars. Many are incarcerated because they were caught abusing drugs. For many years, experts have said that there are alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment for drug addiction that would cut down on recidivism.

As a journalist, my job is to "tell the untold story," but visiting a prison -- especially a private prison -- is especially challenging. I couldn't find out how many drug offenders or other prisoners at Crowley end up back behind bars because nobody is keeping track. And I couldn't find out if the numbers of assaults in this prison had gone up or down since the riot, because those records are not available to the public. These kind of statistics are treated as privileged information by private prison companies. If knowledge is power, a journalist, and by extension the public, is at a disadvantage when it comes to the corporate corrections industry.

I came away from the experience with greater insight into the new ways we define prisons, to match the new ways we define prisoners. I'd just like to think that the corporate world has as much investment -- financial and otherwise -- in keeping people out of prison as it does in building more of them.