Listen: Corrections, Inc.

American RadioWorks’ John Biewen presents “Corrections, Inc.,” a documentary that examines the business and financial aspects of imprisonment, and how some of those with vested interests help to shape who gets locked up and for how long.

The nation's swelling inmate population has turned imprisonment into a $50 billion-a-year industry. Those who've prospered along the way include corporations, prison guard unions, and police agencies.


2002 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Award, Public Service category

2003 National Headliner Award, second place in Investigative Reporting category


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DEBORAH AMOS: From Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News, this is an American Radioworks Special Report, Corrections Inc.

KYLE SMITH: I'm Kyle Smith. I'm with Telecorp labs. We're an inmate telephone provider.

DEBORAH AMOS: After an unprecedented 20-year war on crime, the nation's prisons and jails now hold 2 million people.

BRADFORD GRILL: We manufacture detention doors and frames. Bradford Gill, I'm with the perilous handcuff company.

DEBORAH AMOS: One, result a $50-billion a year industry. It's raw material inmates.

SPEAKER: We're a prisoner-transportation company. We move any type of prisoner, long distance, short distance.

SPEAKER: And I'm with Precision Dynamics Corp. And what we do is we manufacture identification wristbands for detainees and inmates.

DEBORAH AMOS: In the coming hour, we explore how corporations, police agencies, and a prison guards union help to keep the prisons full, Corrections Inc. from American Radioworks. First, the news. This is a special report from American Radioworks, Corrections Inc. I'm Deborah Amos. Over the past two decades, America's prison population doubled then doubled again before finally leveling off at about 2 million inmates, one result, a $50-billion a year corrections industry that's bigger than tobacco.

The annual trade show sponsored by the American Correctional Association is like other big trade shows, a sprawling bazaar of colorful display booths. This one fills a huge hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. It brings together shoppers, mostly prison administrators and hundreds of vendors hawking their wares.

RICK HAMILTON: My name is Rick Hamilton. I'm with American Fence Company out of Phoenix, Arizona.

MICHAEL HINES: Michael Hines, I'm with Sprint, providers of inmate telephone systems and--

DEBORAH AMOS: Uniforms, janitor services, those steel doors and powerful locks. DuPont shows off a new lightweight protective vest just for prison guards.

DUPONT: That protects against stab and slashes.

DEBORAH AMOS: And then there's the eye-catching boss chair. With its wires and straight back and gray finish, it looks electric. But it's not what you think, explains David Turner of Ranger Security Technologies.

DAVID TURNER: See body orifice security scanner. So we're looking for handcuff keys, razor blades, small shanks, et cetera. So basically the person sits down in the chair. They have any metal contraband in the vaginal or anal cavity, gives you an audible as well as a visual alarm.

DEBORAH AMOS: You can get a boss chair for $5,000. On its website, the correctional association points to the $50-billion spent each year to run the nation's prisons and jails. And it warns companies. Don't miss out on this prime revenue-generating opportunity. The crackdown on crime has enriched corporations that build prisons or sell products to them, prison guard unions, and police departments that use budget-fattening incentives to pursue drug criminals. In this special report, American Radioworks correspondent John Biewen explores how some groups with vested interests work to influence public policy, helping to keep more people locked up longer.

JOHN BIEWEN: Think of it, 2 million prisoners eat 6 million meals a day.

JIM CARROLL: My name is Jim Carroll. I'm with Canteen Correctional Services. We provide food services and commissary services to correctional facilities around the country.

JOHN BIEWEN: Inmates get sick.

JIM CHENEY: Jim Cheney, I'm with correctional medical services. We provide comprehensive medical care in jails and prisons on a contract basis.

JOHN BIEWEN: Prisoners exercise and kill time in the game room.

BRIAN WEXLER: Brian Wexler, vice president of sales and marketing with Quality Tablegames. We sell a lot of sporting goods, board games, puzzles to prison facilities.

SPEAKER: No more prisons.

SPEAKER: No more prison.

JOHN BIEWEN: Outside the convention center in Philadelphia, a few hundred people blocked traffic for a peaceful march through Center City. These protesters say a powerful web of private and public interests. The prison industrial complex perpetuates the war on crime for money.

SPEAKER: We are no longer asking. We are demanding. No more making money off of the flesh of other human beings.

JOHN BIEWEN: Some conventioneers with the correctional association seem bemused at the notion that they're causing people to get locked up.

SPEAKER: I think it's Halloween in Philadelphia, man.


JOHN BIEWEN: Ray Zarufi watches protesters dressed in striped inmate costumes. His company supplies prison commissaries.

RAY ZARUFI: The prisoners got to eat, but they got to shave. Somebody got to sell out to the state to put in those jails and the prisons, right?

JOHN BIEWEN: Zarufi has a point. Just because people make a profit from prisons, that doesn't mean there's a corrections lobby that works to drive up the inmate population. Certainly other forces help to do that. Crime soared in the 1970s and '80s. Many Americans were alarmed.

SPEAKER: The problem of crime, one is real and deadly serious as any in America today.

JOHN BIEWEN: Politicians from both parties seized the issue and held on tight for two decades.

SPEAKER: And for enforcement of tough sentences.

SPEAKER: More prisons, more prevention, 100,000 more police.

JOHN BIEWEN: Sure, when it snowed prison related contracts, businesses flocked to grab them. But do they also try to boost demand for their services?

STEVE MCDANIEL: Allow me just to say how much of a pleasure it is to be with all of you here in New York City for Alex 28th annual conference.

JOHN BIEWEN: Tennessee State Representative, Steve McDaniel, welcomes a luncheon audience of 1,000 at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC is not well known to the general public and doesn't try to be. It does boast of helping to pass hundreds of state laws every year from tax cuts to longer prison sentences.

STEVE MCDANIEL: As all of you know, ALEC plays a vital, if understated role, in shaping our nation's agenda. We are the unsung heroes of American public policy.

JOHN BIEWEN: More than a third of the nation's state lawmakers, 2,400 of them are members of ALEC. Most are Republicans and conservative Democrats. ALEC says its mission is to promote free markets, small government, states' rights, and privatization. The featured lunch time speaker is Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and now the Bush administration's secretary of Health and Human Services.

TOMMY THOMPSON: Thank you so very, very much. I appreciate it. I love you. Thank you.


It's great to be a conservative, is it?

JOHN BIEWEN: Members gather at ALEC meetings to swap ideas and form model legislation. Legislators then take those bills home and try to make them state law. Thompson was an ALEC member in his days as a state rep in Wisconsin.

TOMMY THOMPSON: Myself, I always loved to go to these meetings because I always found new ideas, and then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that that's mine.

JOHN BIEWEN: Informing and spreading its ideas, ALEC gets help from corporate leaders. More than 100 companies co-sponsor ALEC conferences, including Turner, a construction giant and the number one builder of prisons and Wackenhut Corrections, which runs private prisons. Another 200 companies and interest groups join ALEC as private sector members. They pay dues for the privilege of helping to write ALEC's model bills. The result is corporate sponsored legislation, says Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in state politics.

EDWIN BENDER: When you look at the sponsor list, Bayer corporation, or BellSouth, or GTE, or Merck pharmaceutical company sitting at a table with elected representatives, actually hammering out a piece of legislation, behind closed doors. I mean, this isn't open to the public. And then that then becomes the basis on which representatives are going to their state legislatures and debating issues.

JOHN BIEWEN: ALEC's corporate members include at least a dozen companies that do prison business, like DuPont and the drug companies Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, telephone companies that compete for lucrative prison contracts, and Corrections Corporation of America or CCA. It dominates the private prison business, building and running prisons and renting cells to governments. Louise Green is a CCA vice president.

LOUISE GREEN: Presently, we have about 55,000 inmates who are housed in our care. We have 65 facilities in 21 states and in Puerto Rico.

JOHN BIEWEN: ALEC's corporate memberships go for $5,000 to $50,000 a year. Neither the company nor ALEC will say how much CCA pays. Green says belonging to ALEC gives the company a chance to educate state lawmakers.

LOUIS GREEN: If those states and counties have considerable overcrowding in their jails and prisons, that partnering with a private corrections company can realize cost savings to their taxpayers, and we can offer effective programming for their inmates.

JOHN BIEWEN: But CCA does more than chat with lawmakers at ALEC meetings. On top of its membership, the company pays $2,000 a year for a seat on ALEC's criminal justice task force which writes the group's model bills on crime and punishment. The committee promotes state laws letting private prison companies operate. And at least since the early 1990s, it has pushed a tough on crime agenda. ALEC staffer Andrew Lefever says crime task force members led the drive for more incarceration.

ALEC LEFEVER: And really took the forefront in promoting those ideals and in taking them into their states and talking to their colleagues and getting their colleagues to understand that if we want to reduce crime, we have to get these guys off the streets.

JOHN BIEWEN: Among ALEC's model bills, mandatory minimum sentences, Three-Strikes laws, giving repeat offenders 25 years to life, and truth in sentencing, which requires inmates to serve most or all of their time without a chance for parole. ALEC didn't invent any of these ideas, but it's played a pivotal role in making them law in the states, says Bender of the National Institute on Money in state politics.

BENDER: By ALEC's own admission in its 1995 model legislation scorecard, they were very successful. They had introduced 199 bills. They had the Truth in Sentencing Act become law in 25 states. That right there is fairly significant.

JOHN BIEWEN: By the late 1990s, about 40 states had passed versions of truth and sentencing similar to ALEC's model bill, helping to push up state prison populations even while crime rates fell. The result, more demand for private prison companies like CCA. In Wisconsin, a group of lawmakers led passage of truth and sentencing in 1998.

SCOTT WALKER: Many of us, myself included, were part of ALEC.

JOHN BIEWEN: Republican State Representative Scott Walker authored the Wisconsin bill.

SCOTT WALKER: Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation and probably more important than just the model legislation had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth in sentencing and showed the successes in other states and that those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us as we pushed it through when we passed the final legislation.

JOHN BIEWEN: But a former head of Wisconsin's prison system, Walter Dickey, says it's shocking that lawmakers would write sentencing policy with help from ALEC, a group that gets funding and supposedly expertise from a private prison corporation.

WALTER DICKEY: Well, I don't know that they know anything about sentencing. They know how to build prisons presumably since that's the business that they're in. As disturbing as anything is, they don't know anything about probation and parole. They don't know about the development of alternatives. They don't know about how public safety might be created and defended in this state and in other states.

JOHN BIEWEN: The Wisconsin Department of Corrections says the Truth in Sentencing law will add to the state's prison population in the years to come. That's money in the bank for Corrections Corporation of America, the company that sits on the committee that wrote ALEC's truth and sentencing bill.

Wisconsin is a CCA customer. Its prisons are overcrowded. So the state houses more than 3,000 inmates at CCA facilities in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. The price tag, more than $50 million a year. Representative Walker says he took into account that CCA and some other ALEC sponsors might have a vested interest in the Truth in Sentencing bill.

WALKER: So oftentimes as a legislator, I mean, that's your great challenge is trying to weed through what everybody's hidden agenda is and figure out who's giving you credible information and in many cases playing one interest off of another to try and sort out what the truth is. More information to me is better.

JOHN BIEWEN: Still Walker says he relied on an ALEC report that credited Virginia's truth in sentencing law with a five-year drop in the state's crime rate. But crime dropped in all states in the 1990s, whether or not they passed laws like Truth in Sentencing.

SPEAKER: Cherry--

JOHN BIEWEN: The Corrections Corporation of America booth with its black and yellow logo has a prominent place at the corrections trade show. Vice president of customer relations James Ball says CCA does not take an active role in writing or promoting ALEC's model sentencing bills.

JAMES BALL: You don't see CCA advocating for longer sentences. That's not true. And if government through its elected representatives identify that, well, we are going to need to provide for public safety by incarcerating individuals, that is not a vendor-driven issue.

JOHN BIEWEN: Asked if giving money and time to the American Legislative Exchange Council doesn't constitute support for tough sentencing policies, Ball says ALEC is just a research organization and doesn't drive public policy. In fact, the group's stated mission is to drive public policy. The former Wisconsin corrections administrator, Walter Dickey, says he paid close attention to the debate over Truth in Sentencing in Madison.

WALTER DICKEY: There was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement in this.

JOHN BIEWEN: Dickey says especially when society is debating how to make the streets safe and what it means for the punishment to fit the crime, profit has no place in the discussion.

WALTER DICKEY: As I used to tell the troops when I was working in corrections, we lock the door, we deny people autonomy and freedom, most cherished things in American life. And to discover that there's a group pushing criminal justice policy because it's a way to make money is very disappointing to me.

DEBORAH AMOS: Coming up, the police and the money they take from suspected drug dealers.

SPEAKER: Law enforcement agencies themselves have become addicted to the seizure of property.

DEBORAH AMOS: I'm Deborah Amos. You're listening to Corrections Inc. from American Radioworks. Our program continues in a moment from NPR, National Public Radio.

This is Corrections Inc, a special report from American Radioworks. I'm Deborah Amos. This bus station in New York City has a specialized route to the federal and state prisons around New York. For many families, these buses are the only way to visit their loved ones in prison. How often do you go up?

SPEAKER: Well, once a month more or less.

DEBORAH AMOS: And you take the kids?

SPEAKER: Yes, I do.

DEBORAH AMOS: How long has he been in.

SPEAKER: 2 and 1/2 years. He'll be in for another 11 years. It's not very easy.

DEBORAH AMOS: It is always crowded here. Over the last 20 years, drug offenders have been the fastest growing segment of the prison population. The trend picked up speed during the crack epidemic of the 1980s when policy makers lengthened prison sentences for drug criminals and called for stepped up enforcement efforts. They also handed police and sheriff's departments a tangible incentive to focus on drugs.

New laws allowed police to supplement their budgets using assets they'd seized in drug operations, cash, homes, cars, boats, and airplanes. Some critics say this has created a conflict of interest by giving police agencies a financial stake in the war on drugs. Correspondent John Biewen has part 2 of our report on criminal justice policy and money.

WALLY LONG: 995 444, do you have traffic?

JOHN BIEWEN: If you drive interstate 35 through Osage County in the flint hills of Southeastern Kansas, chances are you'll pass Sheriff's deputy Wally Long.

WALLY LONG: Well, this is what I mainly do for eight hours a day, just drive the highway, enforce traffic code.

JOHN BIEWEN: Long has a barrel chest and a shaved head. From his well-equipped squad car, he'll clock your speed, eye that little registration sticker on your license plate, and check for any swerving.

WALLY LONG: 995 16 10:44.

JOHN BIEWEN: Given any justification, he'll pull you over. This is a Brown Pontiac with Texas plates.

WALLY LONG: Hi, there. How are you?

SPEAKER: Hi how are you.

WALLY LONG: Good. Running just a little bit faster today. Checked you at 85.

JOHN BIEWEN: The car was in a cluster with other vehicles, so Long wouldn't be able to prove in court that his radar hit on the Pontiac.

WALLY LONG: Not a big deal. I'm just going to give you a warning today on the speed, OK? Do you have your driver's license or insurance with you?

SPEAKER: Yeah. Well--

JOHN BIEWEN: The driver is a 30-ish Hispanic man with an older woman, his mother visiting from Bolivia, he says.

WALLY LONG: And is this your car?


SPEAKER: Your car?

SPEAKER: OK, yeah.

WALLY LONG: And where did you say you were going?

SPEAKER: To Kansas.

WALLY LONG: Kansas City?


WALLY LONG: What takes you up there?

JOHN BIEWEN: The young man's answers are specific. He names a man he and his mother are going to visit, an old friend from her days as an exchange student 30 years ago. The driver volunteers that he's a stockbroker with Fidelity Investments.


SPEAKER: I live in Dallas. I'm a legal resident. I have my green card.

WALLY LONG: That's good.

SPEAKER: I'm married with an American citizen, so everything is in order.

JOHN BIEWEN: Long keeps the man parked on the shoulder for more than 20 minutes. He runs checks on his driver's license and car.

SPEAKER: Insurance 2002 registration on a 99.

JOHN BIEWEN: Then he probes one of the Pontiac's body panels that he says looks like it's been removed.

WALLY LONG: Has anybody worked on your car, put a stereo in it, or speakers, or anything?


WALLY LONG: Will it be OK if we take a quick look in here, take a quick search of the car looking for drugs, alcohol guns?


WALLY LONG: You don't have to let me search. But if you allow me to search, I'm just going to take a few minutes to get you on down the road here. If you don't want me to search, I'm going to ask my partner to come up with his dog. He can do an exterior sniff of the vehicle, and we can get you out of here. It's up to you, whatever you want to do.

SPEAKER: Oh, it's fine. The sooner we leave, the better.


JOHN BIEWEN: Long searches but finds nothing. He finally lets the man and his mother go.

WALLY LONG: And I'm 10, 12.

JOHN BIEWEN: But Long says once or twice a month he finds a good-sized shipment of drugs or money. While working for another Kansas county a couple of years ago, Long hit the jackpot when he stopped a speeder.

WALLY LONG: He was really nervous. I asked him where he was coming from, and he was almost unable to recall where he was coming from because he was trying to think up a lie. And he kept saying um, um, um.

JOHN BIEWEN: Long searched the car and found a laptop computer bag stuffed with $400,000 in cash.

WALLY LONG: He had no idea where the money came from. He thought that somebody must have left it in there that had rented it before him. Signed a disclaimer, and the money was forfeited.

JOHN BIEWEN: The driver wasn't charged with a crime. Long says there was no evidence against him besides the cash. Most of the 40,000 asset seizures made by police every year go uncontested. Police consider that virtual proof they're taking drug money. When Long makes a seizure, the county sends a fraction of the proceeds to the state or federal government to cover paperwork. The local sheriff's department keeps what's left, 80% or 85%.

WALLY LONG: I can tell you this, I have never been instructed by anybody that I've done criminal interdiction work for to go out and seek out only money. That's not what it's about. It's about putting bad guys in jail, putting criminals in jail. And criminals occasionally have money.

JOHN BIEWEN: Do you think that Osage County would devote a deputy full time to this kind of activity if it didn't in effect pay for itself?

WALLY LONG: Yeah, that would be an administrative question.

JOHN BIEWEN: Yeah, yeah. An administrative question for Long's boss, Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert. He works in a cramped office with plywood paneling. He says he's had a deputy patrolling I-35 full time since the early 1990s.

KEN LIPERRT: It seems like we sees anywhere from 40 to 60 year $80,000 worth, mostly cash a year.

JOHN BIEWEN: He alludes to an old TV comedy sketch.

KEN LIPPERT: It was a guy from Puerto Rico, or Cuba, or something. That said, baseball's been very good to me. Well, I-35 has been very good to us.

JOHN BIEWEN: Lippert says the proceeds from seized cash and the seized cars the county auctions off are a modest but much needed supplement to his million-dollar budget. He's spent forfeiture money to equip his squad cars with laptop computers, video cameras, and the latest radar. He bought and remodeled an annex building for his investigators. And the Sheriff uses seized money matched with a federal grant to pay deputy Long's salary.

WALLY LONG: What he's doing down there doesn't cost the local taxpayers anything.

JOHN BIEWEN: So that question again, What if Lippert were not allowed to keep the proceeds of seized assets for his own budget?

KEN LIPPERT: We probably wouldn't be working the interstate like I-35 like we do now.

JOHN BIEWEN: Asset forfeiture is nothing new. In the 1700s, the US government seized boats from Pirates and from shippers who didn't pay their customs duty. But forfeiture wasn't widely used in modern times until 1984. Congress passed a law that year that in effect said to state and local police agencies, when you conduct a drug operation, you can keep most of the assets you seize and use the money to supplement your budget.

JOHN ROTH: It was Congress's intention to take the financial incentive out of crime.

JOHN BIEWEN: John Roth heads the US justice department's asset forfeiture and money laundering section. He says the 1984 law was meant not only to hurt drug traffickers by taking their profits and their vehicles, but also to motivate police officials to go after drug criminals.

JOHN ROTH: If there is asset forfeiture, people are going to be more vigorous in attempting to seize money. We think under the appropriate circumstances and with the appropriate controls, that's a good thing because there is a significant law enforcement purpose behind this.

JOHN BIEWEN: Among the nation's law enforcers, the effect of the 1984 law was like someone throwing a switch. Asset seizures jumped 20-fold to more than half a billion a year by the early '90s. At the same time, the federal government was making grants to create drug task forces. Drug arrests shot up everywhere, including rural Kansas.

KEN LIPPERT: The shower here is necessary.

JOHN BIEWEN: At the Osage County Jail, Sheriff Lippert says eight of his 15 inmates are here on drug charges.

KEN LIPPERT: Along the road here where the single cells are is also a day room where they have a television set and so on. Get out of the doorway.


JOHN BIEWEN: The Sheriff says a lot of crime in Osage County is tied to the proliferation of methamphetamine labs. He says the money Deputy Long siezes on I-35 helps his department go after local dealers like the ones in his jail.

KEN LIPPERT: 3, 4-- well, I guess five of them were direct work from our two narcotics investigators. They were arrested on search warrants and so on.

JOHN BIEWEN: Lippert says proceeds from seized assets helped him create two new drug investigator positions on his now 10-member force.

JOSEPH MCNAMARA: Law enforcement agencies themselves have become addicted to the seizure of property.

JOHN BIEWEN: Joseph McNamara is a former police chief in Kansas City and San Jose and now a research fellow with the Hoover Institution.

JOSEPH MCNAMARA: Law enforcement agencies are constantly under budget pressure. And this is a gift. And in some cases, the emphasis on seizing property can overshadow the emphasis on enforcing the law.

JOHN BIEWEN: McNamara remembers a time in the late 1980s when the San Jose City manager drew up a tentative budget for his 1,100-member police department. The budget line for equipment was marked zero. McNamara asked the city manager why.

JOSEPH MCNAMARA: And he just laughed, and he waved his hand. And he said, last year, you guys seized $4 million in drug seizures, and I expect you to do better this year. And you can buy all of the equipment that you need. And in fact, your job performance will be evaluated on the fact that you seize more money than you did last year.

JOHN BIEWEN: McNamara and other critics say the hunger for cash through seized assets leads to racial profiling, which is usually linked to interdiction efforts on highways. Some say it also causes misplaced priorities, too much pursuit of low level drug couriers and users, like Jerry Gober.

JERRY GOBER: We used to do some commercial cabinets, but we don't do much anymore.

JOHN BIEWEN: Jerry Gober proudly shows off his woodworking shop in suburban Sugar Hill, Georgia. He employs about 15 people, making cabinets for homebuilders around Atlanta.

JERRY GOBER: I've been doing cabinets for about 25, 26 years.

JOHN BIEWEN: Gober insists he's never sold drugs. He does have a history of marijuana use and addiction to methamphetamine. But as a condition of his divorce in 1996, Gober had to take monthly drug tests in order to visit his children. He'd passed one on the morning of his arrest. He says he'd been clean for several months.

JERRY GOBER: It wouldn't have happened. I wasn't out looking for drugs that day.

JOHN BIEWEN: But Gober's girlfriend at the time, Ivan, called him and urged him to buy some meth for both of them from a dealer she knew. Gober says he and Ivan were having a rocky time, but he didn't know she'd gone to the Gwinnett County Police and offered to act as a paid informant.

JERRY GOBER: We wouldn't get along that good in everything. And she didn't get along with the kids too good. And I told her she had to move out. And that pretty much made her mad. And I guess this is what made her decide to try to get me in trouble.

JOHN BIEWEN: Yvonne was helping the police set up Gober for a reverse sting. In a traditional drug sting, undercover cops pose as drug buyers to bust a dealer. In a reverse, the cops become the seller and arrest the buyer. Reverse stings used to be rare, and even now, not all police departments do them. Donn Peevy heads the law firm representing Gober. In the 1970s, Peevy worked undercover drug cases as an officer with the Gwinnett County Police. He says he first heard of reverse stings in a discussion with the local district attorney.

DONN PEEVY: He said I've heard that in some of these states and some other jurisdictions that are doing reverse stings where the police are selling drugs. And he told us in the vice squad there and says don't do it because I'm not going to prosecute it. Particularly if these people are addicted, they're easy targets, and they can't help themselves. And we could do them every day and fill up the jails, but we wouldn't be stopping the problem with drug abuse and drug use.

JOHN BIEWEN: Police departments started doing more reverses after asset forfeiture came into vogue in the 1980s. The traditional sting has no payoff. The police seized drugs and destroy them. In a reverse, the target brings cash the police can seize. Now, back to our story, Jerry Gober's girlfriend, a police informant calls him about a meth connection.

JERRY GOBER: Well, she told me it was her cousin that had it. I think she started out with two ounces.

JOHN BIEWEN: Gober said no to Ivan three times. She kept calling back, lowering the amount of meth and the price.

JERRY GOBER: And then the fourth time, she called back it was an ounce for-- it was $1,000, which I think is probably half the price.

JOHN BIEWEN: The Gwinnett County Police say $1,000 for an ounce of meth is not a bargain. It's the going rate for traffickers. Gober says he'd never bought a whole ounce before that day. In any case, he gave in to his girlfriend's pleading, he says, and to his own addiction. He got $1,000 cash and went to meet the dealer, actually an undercover cop in a Kmart parking lot.

JERRY GOBER: I got in a truck with him. And I gave him the money. And he handed it to me, and several police rushed toward me.

SPEAKER: I figured. Yeah, it's pretty good. I think the--

JOHN BIEWEN: Police captured the takedown on video.

SPEAKER: Man, you're a cop. Don't move, please.

JOHN BIEWEN: The police seized Gober's SUV and his money. The detective counted it for the video.

SPEAKER: In my hand here is $1,000, 1, 2, 3, 4.

JOHN BIEWEN: The police first charged Gober with trafficking because he'd tried to buy an ounce of meth by Georgia law a trafficking amount. If convicted on that charge, he'd have gone to prison for 10 years. But he got lucky. Some of the powder spilled during the arrest, so the district attorney reduced the charge to possession. Gober spent just 30 days in jail and a year in house arrest. Because of technical mistakes by the police, he even got his car and his $1,000 back. Still Gober and his lawyers argue the Gwinnett County Police, motivated by asset seizure, created a crime.

JERRY GOBER: I mean, I admit I shouldn't have been there to start with. I made a mistake. But after they called the first time I said no, I think it should have been it. I don't think they should have pushed it after that, especially the second and third. They called me four times before I said yeah.

JOHN BIEWEN: Gwinnett County District attorney Danny Porter says the fact that police created an opportunity for Gober to break the law doesn't make him any less guilty.

DANNY PORTER: If you possess a controlled substance, if you sell it, if you manufacture it, if you possess it with intent to distribute, you're in violation of the law, period. That's it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Porter says the police in this big suburban county seize, on average, $600,000 in cash and vehicles every year. He insists the police would do reverse stings even if the operations didn't yield cash for the department. Then again, he says the narcotics squad, headed by Major Rick Edmonds, can afford to do reverses because they bring in money.

DANNY PORTER: Because when you pretend to be a drug dealer, you got to pretend all the way, and you got to show up with all the toys, and you got to be the guy. And if we didn't have the forfeiture statutes, I find it more difficult to believe that Major Edmonds could go up to the chief of police and say, we need to rent a fancy SUV for this case that's going to net us an arrest. I suspect we'd have a harder time with that. So certainly forfeiture has some inducement. But we don't do it just for the money.

JOHN BIEWEN: Some critics of asset forfeiture say to remove what they consider a conflict of interest. Seized assets should go to general government coffers, not to police agencies. Every time someone proposes such a measure, law enforcement officials complain loudly. In Kansas, a couple of state lawmakers want to redirect asset forfeiture proceeds to the school system. Here's what Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert thinks of that idea.

KEN LIPPERT: I don't see the schools out there and all kinds of weather and a patrol car with a gun and a badge trying to take the dope away from these people like my guys are. I feel like it's law enforcement money because we're out there earning it.

SPEAKER: Hi, there. Tell you the reason I stopped you. I couldn't see you had a tag on your vehicle. I could see you had something up there but I couldn't read it because the windows were smoked. Do you have the paperwork for the vehicle?


SPEAKER: Where are you guys headed to?


SPEAKER: What takes you up there?


SPEAKER: What kind of job do you do?




SPEAKER: Work for the union?

JOHN BIEWEN: Each year, police make about 1.5 million drug arrests and seize $500 or $600 million in assets. People who applaud the war on drugs and those who have doubts about it agree on this. Police and sheriffs departments would not have waged the war with the same vigor over the last decade and a half if not for asset forfeiture.


DEBORAH AMOS: Still to come, the prison guards of California. Their politically powerful union gives new meaning to the job of keeping prisoners behind bars. It lobbies hard for tough on crime laws.

SPEAKER: I find it not appropriate, in my humble opinion, for them to try to make sure that the prison population stays large.

DEBORAH AMOS: I'm Deborah Amos. Major funding for American Radioworks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and members of Minnesota Public Radio. Corrections Inc. is supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute. To learn more about money and the politics of criminal justice, visit our website You'll find slideshows statistics and links.

You can also find an archive of American Radioworks documentaries and learn how to order a cassette copy of this program. That's You're listening to corrections Inc. Our report continues in just a moment from NPR, National Public Radio. This is Corrections Inc, a special report from American Radioworks.

SPEAKER: Come on, Jim. Get off [INAUDIBLE].

DEBORAH AMOS: Like any big industry, Corrections is a major employer. More than 600,000 Americans work in a prison or jail, about as many as work for an airline. The majority of prison workers are guards.

SPEAKER: Come on, man. Pick them boots up, and come on.

DEBORAH AMOS: In California, the guards union has become one of the most powerful and politically aggressive interest groups in the state. Correspondent John Biewen has the final segment in our special report on money and the politics of criminal justice.

JOHN BIEWEN: A spring day in Sacramento--

SPEAKER: Is there representative from families to amend Three-Strikes?


SPEAKER: Come forward

JOHN BIEWEN: --in a crowded state assembly hearing room, a middle aged woman with red hair steps to the podium.

VIVIAN MORGAN: Thank you for this opportunity. My name is Vivian Morgan, and I'm from Fountain Valley California. And my son was sentenced under the Three-Strikes law for simple drug possession, 25 years to life.

JOHN BIEWEN: Vivian Morgan works at a hotel as a hospitality coordinator. Her son, Doug Rash, is 35 and a drug addict. Morgan says he got his first two strikes in the 1980s for burglary.

VIVIAN MORGAN: His first strike was taking a music keyboard from his father's house and pawning it. His stepmother thought that she would press charges hoping that he would get some help with his drug problem. Strike two, a friend of his had broke up with his girlfriend and still had a key to their apartment. He wanted his CDs back. So he went with him to the apartment to get the CDs. Her father arrived, had them arrested. Nothing was taken. That was his second strike.

JOHN BIEWEN: Then in 1994, Rash got caught with 4/10 of a gram of cocaine in his pants pocket. Strike-Three, rash is now in a state prison, and he won't be free until at least 2014.

SPEAKER: I want to see how far we can get this line going so that we can get around this Capitol.

JOHN BIEWEN: It's later on the same bright morning on the grounds that one end of the Capitol, a band of protesters calls for changes in the three strikes law. They wear black T-shirts and carry signs, like stop filling prisons with non-violent offenders. There's a growing push in California by ballot initiative and in the assembly to limit the state's Three-Strikes law to violent felons.

SPEAKER: When do we want it?


SPEAKER: What do we want?

SPEAKER: Justice.

JOHN BIEWEN: California enacted the nation's first Three-Strikes law in 1994 after several high profile murders by repeat offenders. The law allows judges to give three-time felons 25 years to life with no chance for parole. In every other state that passed Three-strikes, only serious or violent crimes count as strikes, not in California. Here, almost half of the third strikers locked up so far, more than 3,000 people, had non-violent third strikes, drug possession, drug sales, petty theft.

GABRIELLE THOMPSON: Somebody that I love dearly has been sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-violent felony, extortion of $800.

JOHN BIEWEN: Gabrielle Thompson of San Jose has changed her mind about Three-Strikes.

GABRIELLE THOMPSON: I voted for Three-Strikes. And I had no idea the implications of what I was doing. Everybody was in a frenzy. It was a very emotional issue. And I think the rest of the general public, we assumed it was going to affect murderers, child molesters. And it's a huge waste of our tax dollars and our resources.

JOHN BIEWEN: The opponents of Three-Strikes have gotten a huge boost from recent court decisions that could affect hundreds of cases. Last fall, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Three-Strikes resulted in cruel and unusual punishment. In the case of Leandro Andrade, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison with no chance for parole. His third strike, stealing $150 worth of videos from Kmart. In February, the court struck down two more three strikes sentences for offenders convicted of petty theft.

SPEAKER: That's the time. That's the crime.

JOHN BIEWEN: But Three-Strikes has powerful defenders in the governor's office, the assembly, and crime victims groups. They reject any efforts to soften the law. Follow the money behind California's tough on crime coalition, and one group looms startlingly large, the Prison Guards Union. Just around the corner from the i-Three-Strikes rally on the front steps of the Capitol.

DON NOVEY: You please remain standing for the pledge to the flag. I pledge allegiance to the flag.

SPEAKER: Don Novey is President of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the CCPOA. Every spring, the Prison Guards Union sponsors the victims march on the Capitol. A few hundred members of crime victims groups sit in chairs arranged in neat rows on the Capitol lawn. Poster-sized photos of murder victims line the steps in front of the podium. On the grass, rows of white cardboard coffins.

DON NOVEY: I would now like to have Ms. Mindy Russell please come forward and deliver the invocation.

JOHN BIEWEN: Mindy Russell is a police chaplain in Sacramento. Opening her Bible, she reads a passage from the book of Proverbs that perhaps captures this crowd's feelings about criminals.

MINDY RUSSELL: This is a description of worthless and wicked people. They are constant liars, signaling their true intentions to their friends by making signs with their eyes and feet and fingers. Their perverted hearts plot evil. And they stir up trouble constantly.

JOHN BIEWEN: But she reads, the wicked will be destroyed and broken beyond all hope. This demonstration has amenities, a big tent for those who want shade and lunch. Lined up at the curb are charter buses that brought in rally participants from up and down the state. The Prison Guards union pays for everything.

HARRIET SALERNO: I have to say that CCPOA is very generous for us. They are number one helper.

JOHN BIEWEN: 69-year-old Harriet Salerno heads Crime Victims United of California, a group devoted to public safety that is tough punishment for criminals. Salerno's daughter was murdered in 1979. The victim's movement is often called Grassroots. But two prominent California victims groups, the Doris Tate Bureau and Salerno's Organization, owe their existence to the prison guards.

HARRIET SALERNO: I got a phone call from Don Novey to meet him in Sacramento at his office.

JOHN BIEWEN: She recalls her first meeting with the union president in 1990.

HARRIET SALERNO: And I said, well, at that time, we victims don't have any support. I've been coming up to Sacramento as a bleeding heart mother trying to get legislation, and nobody would listen. He said, OK, then, well, let us help you. And so we founded Crime Victims United of California together. And in fact, our headquarters is at the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation.

LANCE CORCORAN: This building has been here since 1992.

JOHN BIEWEN: Union vice president, Lance Corcoran, a former guard, gives a tour of CCPOA's two-storey headquarters in West Sacramento.

LANCE CORCORAN: We've got the correctional Peace Officers Memorial out front our Memorial wall, which lists the names of every officer that's been killed in the line of duty.

JOHN BIEWEN: In 1980, the union had a staff of four. Corcoran is now one of 90 employees. While the state's prison population ballooned over the last two decades, the union's membership grew more than 10-fold to 31,000. Their dues payments give the union a $22 million annual budget.

LANCE CORCORAN: We have two in-house full time lobbyists. And we employ anywhere from three to sometimes as many as six contract lobbyists.

JOHN BIEWEN: The CCPOA has emerged as one of California's biggest political donors. Its pacs have doled out almost $10 million since 1998. The union uses some of its cloud on bread and butter issues. The average California guard now earns about $50,000 a year, almost twice the national average. That'll go up still more under a new contract pushed through the state senate by Majority Leader John Burton and signed by Governor Gray Davis. The CCPOA has given millions to those two politicians. It spent $2 million just on Davis's 1998 election campaign. Lance Corcoran--

LANCE CORCORAN: A term that's used for CCPOA sometimes is that we're powerful. Powerful, I think, has a negative connotation that we abuse that power in some ways. I think more appropriate term would be successful. We have successfully moved our agenda by supporting candidates that are willing to listen to our issues.

JOHN BIEWEN: Those issues include not only wages and training, but also tough on crime policies.

JEFF THOMPSON: Mr. Chairman, members Jeff Thompson on behalf of crime victims United of California also with the CCPOA.

JOHN BIEWEN: Back at the state assembly hearing, the Guard Union's chief lobbyist argues against any softening of Three-Strikes.

JEFF THOMPSON: And we think the Three-Strikes law has worked extremely well. At least speaking from the experience in the prison system, we've seen a stabilization of our population as the true habitual criminals have been incarcerated and off the street.

JOHN BIEWEN: Thompson gives Three-Strikes a lot of the credit for California's 40% drop in crime since the law took effect. The law's critics point out that crime dropped about as much in some places that have no Three-strikes law, like the state of New York and Washington D.C. In the hallway after the hearing, Thompson huddles with members of victims groups. They're angry that the relatives of third strikers got most of the seats in the hearing room.

SPEAKER: We are the victims.

SPEAKER: They know that works.

SPEAKER: Their husbands, their brothers murdered our family, and they're the victims.

SPEAKER: That's why they're playing it.

JOHN BIEWEN: Thompson sends the victim's relatives to lobby assembly members against the Three-Strikes reform bill.

SPEAKER: Roster.

SPEAKER: Thank you so much.

SPEAKER: Thank you.

JOHN BIEWEN: Thousands of union jobs are at stake in the battle over Three-Strikes. If the law is not changed a dozen years from now, California prisons will hold an estimated 15,000 aging third strikers, most of whom would have been released years earlier without the law. Back in 1993, the CCPOA was a leading funder of the campaign for Three-Strikes. Democratic assembly member Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles is sponsoring a bill to put Three-Strikes reform on the November ballot. She argues the law has managed to survive this long unamended because of the prison guards.

JACKIE GOLDBERG: They're essential to it. First of all, they give enormous number of legislators donations in their campaigns. We, including myself, seek their support.

JOHN BIEWEN: The CCPOA gave $2 million to legislative campaigns in each of the last two election cycles. Its contributions to several assembly leaders were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The union gave Jackie Goldberg $5,000 two years ago. She opposes private prisons as does the union, and she's pro-labor. But she says she's troubled by what she sees as the union's conflict of interest on sentencing issues.

JACKIE GOLDBERG: I support the Correctional Officers' Union, their right to organize, the decent pay, and decent working conditions. I find it not appropriate, in my humble opinion, for them to try to make sure that the prison population stays large, if that's what in fact they're doing.

JOHN BIEWEN: The union is not trying to expand its membership, says the CCPOA's vice president Lance Corcoran.

LANCE CORCORAN: I can't say it any more plain. I mean, I'll give you a copy of the purpose of the organization, promote and enhance the correctional profession and protect the welfare of those engaged in it.

SPEAKER: And to advocate in the political arena for certain kinds of policies.

LANCE CORCORAN: Well, I think that's part of it. I think that's part of the entire mix.

JOHN BIEWEN: Corcoran argues the union's activism on crime policy is no different from that of, say, teachers unions who lobby on education issues. If teachers know about the needs of students, prison guards are experts on criminals. Corcoran says guards and crime victims have a natural kinship because both feel firsthand the damage that criminals do.

LANCE CORCORAN: And just because an individual is sentenced to confinement doesn't mean that they haven't stopped victimizing individuals. As a matter of fact, we now become, in many cases, the victims of their actions.

SPEAKER: The worst among us eventually end up here.

JOHN BIEWEN: The CCPOA commissioned this video a couple of years ago and bought time for it on several California cable channels. In it, guards at the Corcoran Maximum Security Prison tell of being assaulted by inmates without reason or warning.

SPEAKER: I mean, you're constantly on the lookout because inmates are trying to spit in your face or trying to throw feces on you.

SPEAKER: I've seen whole buildings erupt, violence.

JACKIE GOLDBERG: They see, unfortunately, the worst side of human nature day in and day out. I think that skews their impressions

JOHN BIEWEN: Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg--

JACKIE GOLDBERG: I think it is unfair to say that they're just trying to make sure that they have a job next year. I don't believe that. But I do believe that they have a skewed sense of reality. They create an environment in which policy makers lose sight of simple ideas like the punishment should fit the crime.

SPEAKER: Thank you.


JOHN BIEWEN: The CCPOA's critics say in effect to state policy makers, ignore them. They're the prison guards. The union says to state leaders, you'd better listen to us. We're the prison guards. The battle goes on in Sacramento and across California.

SHAUNA: OK, I'm Shauna. I'm from San Diego. My husband is serving 25 to life for 0.05 grams of a controlled substance.

DON NOVEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Don Novey, representing victims in California hopefully. The day the people behind us in this California's policy building, the Capitol, forget you is the day the criminal element takes over in our society.

DEBORAH AMOS: It may be almost impossible to completely remove monetary motives from criminal justice policy and practice. In fact, though, money can cut both ways. To state leaders now trying to solve budget crises, all those overflowing prisons suddenly look expensive. Partly for that reason, some states have begun closing prisons or reversing the tough sentencing policies they passed in the last decade.

Corrections Inc. was produced by John Biewen. It was edited by Deborah George. Coordinating producer Sasha Aslanian. Mixing help from Craig Thorson and Tom Mudge. Production coordinator, Maisha Quill. Production assistance from Seth Lind, Boris Gomes Diz, and Mark Holterhaus. The managing editor is Stephen Smith. Executive producer, Bill Buzenberg. I'm Deborah Amos.

Major funding for American Radioworks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and members of Minnesota Public Radio. Corrections Inc. was supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute. For more on these issues, including photos and a reporter's notebook, visit our website American Radioworks is the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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