“Disneyland ain’t comin’ here”

•January 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

New Hampshire’s Governor John Lynch gave his ‘State of the State’ address yesterday, singling out the North Country for a little bit of TLC. He called the almost-completed prison in Berlin one of two initiatives “to connect North Country workers with jobs”:

“In September 2010, a new federal prison will open in Berlin, employing an estimated 300 people. We will partner with White Mountain Community College to train individuals who want to work at the prison and to provide technical assistance to companies that have goods and services to sell to the prison. North Country businesses and workers deserve to reap the economic benefits of this new facility……

Let’s make sure that these new jobs go to North Country workers.”

Chances are, less than half will. Visiting a few prisons and prison towns last year, some of the BOP employees I met seemed extremely curious about working up in Berlin. The Bureau of Prisons is, from observation, an intensely rise-through-the-ranks organization. Unlike other federal agencies,  the head has never been appointed, and the current chief—Harley Lappin—started as a case manager at a low-security prison in Texarkana, Tx. 25 years ago. Working your way up through  inhospitable workplace conditions earns you a measure of respect among your colleagues. Just like the people they watch over, working in a federal prison “is no cakewalk,” as one told me.

How this translates for the unemployed of Berlin, Gorham, et al: in a nutshell, BOP personnel are hungry for jobs at new prisons, because helping a new prison get off the ground means increased career prestige, more pay, more cache. This project was touted for many years as a shot-in-the-arm for the depressed North Country economy, but it may not provide the salvation the city fathers have been hoping for. But maybe this was a decision born of desperation. As former Mayor Bob Danderson—the main person responsible for courting the BOP—told me, the prison was a “necessary evil” in a dying town.

“Prison was the only real option that was going to happen. Hey, I can dream with the best of ‘em…A lot of people, they wanted Disneyland. Well,  guess what, Disneyland ain’t coming here.”


A Lego prison, or considering concrete

•January 20, 2010 • 5 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about concrete this past week, partly due to the apocalyptic images of devastated Haiti. Concrete was relied on so heavily there due to the island’s constant battering of hurricanes; yes it’s strong, but when a concrete walls tumble, they’re lethal to the unfortunate souls inside. And difficult to move and shift unless you have heavy equipment, which the Haitians lacked until rescue crews started arriving days after the quake.

Last spring I considered concrete more intently while writing about FCI-Berlin, the federal prison being built in New Hampshire’s North Country. A prison is, for the most part, composed of hundreds of cells, and those cells are precast in concrete, thousands of cubic yards of the stuff. “Remember Legos? Those fun, multi-colored little bricks you built castles with? Now imagine stacking hundreds of 30-ton Lego bricks with a hydraulic crane. This is what precast construction for schools, dormitories, and most recently, correctional facilities is all about.” So writes Ann Coppola in a 2007 issue of Corrections Today.

As a prison rises, its cells arrive completely assembled, kitted out with a metal bed, toilet and sink, fluorescent lights, a non-glass mirror, and a sprinkler system. Each 6×8 space in Berlin has one oblong window cut vertically by a steel bar, a sometimes-maligned design that has been called ‘slit-window gun-tower’ style. These cells are painted pale yellow on the inside, the floors left a stony gray.

Precast concrete cells are built by only a handful of companies in the US, and Oldcastle Precast among the largest. Like many vendors to the prison industry, Pennsylvania-based Oldcastle is  reticent when it comes to talking publicly about their business: manufacturing behemoth, Lego-type cells intended for “rapid assembly.” Thousands of them. Right now, they are promoting a new product, a “Precast Cell with Balcony” that can be used in civilian and military prisons.

The use of precast concrete for cells was something of an innovation in the mid-1980s. Until that time, cells were built by masons, a lengthier and more expensive process. Just as harsher sentencing laws were causing an explosion of prisons, precast concrete made it cheaper and easier to put them up. “The most visible challenge facing modern prison construction is to make more room for incoming inmates – and fast,” begins one article in a concrete industry rag. Oldcastle became a main supplier to the prison industry, and is the primary vendor for FCI-Berlin. The cells were fabricated by mixing cement, water and maybe some fly ash and sand, then poured it into a mold so that it pools around a skeleton of wire rebar. It is then ‘cured’, or hardened, over the next few days.

It’s about 230 miles from Rehoboth, Massachusetts to Berlin, New Hampshire, a distance that probably seems much longer when you’re hauling a 7,200 pound block of concrete on your flatbed. Last fall, trucks sagging with cell blocks started rumbling their way up from Rehoboth, up route 16 and into Berlin, over the bridge connecting the main and eastern parts of the city, and then finally onto the prison site. They were so heavy that they are barely cleared the ground as they traveled down the road, and because the cells protruded two feet on either side of the bed, each was accompanied by a police escort with twirling lights.  “We’d see them starting at about 8:30 in the morning. And when you saw them, they’re so big, you needed to get out of the way,” said a woman who lived nearby. One clipped the antennas of several cars parked along the side of the road. Another fell off the back of the truck and had to be hauled back on. A state trooper escorting a few cells through Jefferson hit a father and son cycling along the shoulder of Route 115, sending both to the hospital.

After touring FCI Berlin one day, I had a beer at Fagins Pub, where many of the guys working on the prison would relax after work. There, I met many ‘creeters’, or those who pour concrete floors and foundations. One inparticular had been working on the prison site for about a year. When I asked him how many yards of concrete he reckons will go into the structure. “Oh! I dunno. It must be millions.”  (it’s actually about 250,000 yards). He was unwinding after a day spent pouring the last of the foundation for the main building. When that was done, his crew was to start shaping and flattening floors. “I hate floors. I hate having to stoop over that much.” He was six-foot-four, and using lasers to level the floors is painstaking work.
There were 40 or 50 creeters on the site, most of them from the North Country. The concrete for the floors came from Coleman Concrete down the road in Gorham. “You need to get concrete somewhere within an hour’s drive of where it’s made else it will harden before it gets to where it needs to go.” He takes out his wallet and shows me his card from ACI, the American Concrete Institute. “You want to know something else?”
“When does concrete reach its maximum strength?” Pride washes over his face, and he pauses for effect. “100 years!” He’s right, of course: concrete reaches about 90 percent of its strength three weeks after curing, and continues to strengthen over the ensuing decades. “It takes a hundred years for all of the moisture to evaporate out of poured concrete,” he adds. After that, concrete enters a slow decline.

Fagins Pub burned down a few weeks after that, one of seemingly dozens of buildings that have burned to the ground here in the past three years.  Up on the hill, the concrete floors were in place, and so were the cells. Last I drove by what used to be Fagins, some young men were shifting around the ruins. It was one of the only places to grab a drink in Berlin. I’m not sure where the creeters have moved on to.

The BOP on Twitter

•January 14, 2010 • 2 Comments

Recruiting personnel for new federal prisons is no easy task, even though ‘jobs’ is the seductive mantra to which depressed rural communities often succumb. The vetting process for potential COs is lengthy and grueling, and finding personnel who meet all of the criteria (including a clean credit history and relative youth) can be a challenge, according to Cathi Litcher, a BOP recruitment specialist. I met Cathi after she delivered a high-energy recruitment pitch in Berlin this summer. She was unfailingly open, telling me that the BOP likes to cull two-thirds of new staff from the local area, “but honestly, sometimes I have a hard time getting 60 percent.” A sizable portion of the crowd in Berlin walked out of the Junior High School auditorium when Cathi laid bare the truth:  they needed to be under the age of 37 to become a CO. The average age of Berlin’s unemployed mill workers is 56, after all, but somehow this discordant math was glossed over during the years when Berlin’s city government was courting the BOP.

But that’s water under the bridge. Last June, Cathi Litcher was just starting to use social media to bolster recruitment efforts.  Now you can follow BOPRecruiter on Twitter. Staffing FCI McDowell (in Weset Virginia) seems to be a focus right now. My guess is that FCi Berlin will follow in short order. At 558 relentlessly upbeat tweets and counting, here are a few gems:

“We are so hiring! The feds offer secure and stable career opportunities! Check it out http://ow.ly/oN6M

“I have a secret! The Warden for the new FCI in McDowell County, WV was selected on Friday! Pretty cool, uh? Stay tuned and I’ll spill!

“Still wondering if the position of Chaplain in the Bureau of Prisons might be for you? Take a minute thirty to find out!”

“We are such good neighbors to the community, Terre Haute wants to lobby for another facility! Sweet!

“Application hint: Read the duties of the position first. Don’t forget to include your experience that is the same.”

“That’s right! West Virginia and the Bureau of Prisons work as partners for the economic good of the state! Check it out!

“Project number of Correctional Officer hires in 2010 to 2012? 4,646 ! You bet we are hiring!

“This is the best thing that could have happened to us”

•December 19, 2009 • Leave a Comment

….said the president of tiny Thomson, Illinois’ Chamber of Commerce, upon learning that the long-empty prison there would soon be home to Guantanamo inmates. ‘Ecstatic’ and ‘wonderful’ were other words that residents use to describe how it felt to become home to the highest-security prisoners within the federal system; Agence France Presse reported the story.

Photo of State Highway 84 in Thomson, from the Agence France Presse.

While a Supermax prison will certainly create new jobs in Carroll County—where unemployment hovers at 11 percent — the people here should ring up other small towns that have courted and won federal prisons. The myths are rife with regards to the economic shot-in-the-arm that a new prison delivers; during construction, that uptick is pronounced but brief. After commissioning, it is negligibly marginal. Yet desperation breeds delusion—and in a place where you have nothing left, jobwise at least, isn’t something better than nothing? Even if it involves the warehousing of other human beings?

The logic seems faulty, but when emotions are involved, and children need to be fed, logic can take a backseat to compartmentalized pragmatism. If you love a rural place, the place you grew up and the place you live, then

a) you stay in that place because you love it, because it is close-knit, quiet and safe, and often because of family; so

b) you want your children to stay there too; but

c) when the place no longer has work necessary to keep your children at ‘home,’ you

d) court any industry that might provide the jobs to live—e.g. call centers, factories, and increasingly, prisons; then

e) when you land a prison, you rejoice. Yet

f) that prison inexorably changes the character of your town, and the disposition of your children that work there. And there are humans in that prison, people who live in your place too but whom you will never come to know. In fact, probably even fear.

Is the cost worth the benefit? Is this really a viable future? Can you stand to think about the broader systems  that put you in this position in the first place?

Thomson, Illinois — bingo

•December 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The big announcement came today: President Barack Obama ordered that the long-empty, eight-wing prison in Thomson, Illinois, be purchased by the feds in order to house displaced prisoners from Guantanamo.

3,000 new jobs is the widely-reported figure, an intoxicating number for a depressed area with 11 percent unemployment. Whether or not those jobs will come from the vicinity is lost in the current swoon.

Jim Sacia is the state representative for Illinois’ 89th district, which abuts Thomson. He paid a voice-visit to NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ earlier in the day.

Host Robert Siegel: Tell us about the prison in Thomson, and why it’s almost empty.

Jim Sacia: I certainly will. The citizens of Thomson, some ten years ago, agreed to have a maximum facility state institution built there, and it was completed approximately eight years ago. And from the time it was completed in 2002 there has not been adequate funding to open it. And accordingly, the numerous people that prepared for its opening built motels, gas stations, automobile dealerships, etcetera, literally had  their dreams broken, Many are bankrupt, And we have attempted for the past seven years to get the facility open, to no avail. If those prisoners are going to come to the United States of America, on our mainland, bring them to Thomson, we’ll gladly house them.

RS: But just to clarify, the state of Illinois borrowed enough to build the prison but then didn’t have the funds to operate it.

JS: That’s exactly what happened, sir.

RS: Will there really be local prison jobs for people either in Thomson or in your district…or will those jobs in fact go to people with experience in the federal Bureau of Prisons who will actually get the jobs?

JS: Well, I think you’re going to get a little bit of both. According to the briefing I received on November 15, there’s unquestionably going to be 200 prison guards brought in initially from around the country, people willing to relocate here.  What we were told is somewhere between three and 500 people from the local area would have the opportunity to be trained as prison guards on the federal level. But as a retired law enforcement officer myself, I am well aware that people throughout the US can apply for these positions. Certainly I see local jobs, local development, but people throughout the country will have these opportunities..

According to these numbers, 10 percent of the Thomson prison workforce will come  from the local area.

“The Shawshank Transaction”

•December 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Arizona, ever on the forefront of criminal justice, is flirting with the idea of privatizing its state prisons. The state is coping with a budget crisis nearly as acute as California’s, and has proposed selling its prisons to the highest bidder. It’s no secret that much of that business would likely go to Corrections Corporation of America;  the ever-growing goliath is already busy proposing new prisons for Winslow and Forepaugh.

In The Guardian newspaper, Sasha Abramsky (author of American Furies, an indictment of the US penal system) called the plan “kooky.”  The absurdity of the situation has not escaped Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who mocked the plan last month. Calling a prison inmate “the only job with real security,” Colbert praises Arizona’s foresight in typical deadpan style. “We’ve got to privatize the entire criminal justice system, folks. Nothing will motivate the police like arresting on commission.”

Cell phones in prison—digital gold

•November 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The average hourly wage for an entry-level corrections officer hovers around $14 to $16, depending on the place. It comes as little surprise, then, that COs would engage in some contraband smuggling to earn extra cash. A television news team in Tennessee has found one in five cell phones that make it to inmates were snuck in by prison employees—one enterprising rec assistant used his leg brace to smuggle two cell phones and some tobacco into a state prison. The report also found that the private prison outfit Corrections Corporation of America fired seven employees over the last five years for smuggling illegal cell phones into inmates. In fact, CCA is being sued for $14 million by a police officer wounded during a prison break, a scheme orchestrated through the use of an illegal phone.

At a prison recruitment seminar in the North Country this past spring, BOP recruitment specialist Cathi Litcher justified the intense vetting of potential COs in part by mentioning the temptation of earning up to $800 per smuggled cell phone and $1200 for a carton of cigarettes “If you aren’t paying your bills, don’t  think that an inmate won’t try to manipulate you,” she told the crowd.

I already had a sense of the low pay scale for COs from prior visits to the BOP prison site in Berlin, and a conversation with a disgruntled construction manager giving me a tour there. After most of my prison-building-related questions were deflected, I gave up and simply asked him, “So, how do you like the North Country?”

“I don’t. It’s too damned expensive.”  He had bought a place in every town he has worked, and found Berlin unexpectedly dear.   “I worry about everyone else who comes to work here. Between food and taxes and heat, how will they do it?”

He reckoned out loud that starting COs make about $15 an hour to start.  “They’ll need to rent.  Period. And even the guy who is renting won’t be able to afford it.” As he watched me write that down he added, “There’s your story right there.”