Skip to main content

The Effect of the "Prison Industrial Complex"

Journalist Eric Schlosser talks about who is profiting from America's prison boom. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote this month's cover article entitled "The Prison Industrial Complex."

34:52

Other segments from the episode on December 3, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 1998: Interview with Eric Schlosser; Interview with Vivien Stern; Review of Miles Davis's album "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Eric Schlosser
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

The prison industry is booming. My guest, Eric Schlosser, examines why in his article "The Prison Industrial Complex." It's the cover story of the December edition of "The Atlantic Monthly." Schlosser is a journalist who previously joined us to talk about the business of pornography.

He says the prison industrial complex isn't a conspiracy, it's a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment regardless of the actual need.

I asked Schlosser what special interests are part of the prison industrial complex.

ERIC SCHLOSSER, JOURNALIST, "The Atlantic Monthly": Well, from the political point of view it's both liberal and conservative politicians who, for last 20 years, have used the fear of crime to gain votes and have really played to people's fears and anxieties.

In terms of bureaucratic interests, it's the Departments of Correction which like any bureaucracy have a built-in motive to grow. And in terms of economic interests, it's poor rural areas who have seen prisons as a very good way of fueling economic growth.

Oddly enough, in some areas as military bases have closed they've been replaced by new prisons. I visited Fort Dix in New Jersey, and on part of the base where they used to have barracks for the Army, they now have prisoners.

The economic interests are also the companies that are now involved in the prison industry. About 15 years ago the total value of spending on prisons in this country was about $8 billion, and now it's about $35 to $40 billion; that's a big marekt.

So, whether it's the phone companies or the big construction companies or architecture firms and plumbing supply companies there are now huge conventions every year for the prison industry. And this just didn't exist a generation ago.

GROSS: I don't want to dwell to munch on statistics, but the numbers do show that there is a prison boom. What are some of the most interesting statistics you found in your research that show the growth in prisons now?

SCHLOSSER: Well, the thing that I found most stunning is that the United States has almost two million citizens locked up behind bars, and that's more than any other country in the world. And it's about half a million more than communist China.

It's just a staggering figure; imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Miami - behind bars. And this is a very recent phenomenon; in the early 1970s, there were only about 200,000 people in the United States behind bars. California has more than that right now in its prisons and jails.

GROSS: Now, since 1991 you say the rate of violent crime in the U.S. has fallen by about 20 percent, but the number of people in jail or prison has risen by about 50 percent. What are some of the different explanations for that?

SCHLOSSER: Well, again, I think that once the laws were put in place; the mandatory minimum drug sentences, and the laws that got rid of parole; and judges began giving longer sentences. There was this mechanism in place that was going to continue growing the prison system regardless of the rate and violent crime.

One of the things that people need to remember is that most of the people who are being sent away each year are not violent offenders, and when it comes to violent offenders like murderers, and rapists, and violent armed robbers few people would argued that these people should be wondering the streets.

But two-thirds of the people who are being sent to prison every year are nonviolent offenders, and that's where most of the growth in the prison population has come from.

And I think it's very important to keep in mind who we're talking about when we're talking about the prison system in this country in terms of who the inmates are.

Because if you looked at this as a prison industrial complex; the inmates are the raw material of this industry. And it's very disturbing who we're locking up.

GROSS: So, the prison population is booming; has the population itself changed -- in other words the people in the prison population?

SCHLOSSER: Well, it has changed in the sense that the proportion of inmates who are African American has really risen. And now a majority -- a slight majority of the inmates in this country are African American.

What's changed is the arrest rate of African American men for drug crimes; Black men and White men use illegal drugs at about the same rate, but Black men are five times more likely to be sent to prison for a drug crime than White men are.

And as a result, you have one out of -- the odds that a Black man in the United States will be sent to prison now is about one in four, and in some states in the United States -- Florida for example, one out of every four African-American men can no longer vote because of having been sent to prison.

The inmate population is poor; about 70 percent of the inmates are illiterate; about 60 to 80 percent are substance abusers; and a very large number of the prison inmates in this country are seriously mentally ill.

They're the kind of people who, a generation ago, would have been in mental institutions. But because of that the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the '70s and '80s they are now locked up in prison receiving very little care.

I'm talking about manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics, and the United States is unusual in using its prison system to deal with seriously and mentally ill people.

There are also a lot of women in prison; of the women in prison about 70 percent are nonviolent offenders; about 75 percent have children; and all told, right, now they're about 1 to 2 million children in America who have at least one parent in prison.

And that has very dangerous implications because when you look at who's most likely to be sent to prison -- studies have found that someone who has had a parent in prison is statistically far more likely to be sent to prison. So, we're creating perhaps a cycle of incarceration by locking up this many parents.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Eric Schlosser and he has the cover story in the December edition of the "The Atlantic Monthly" on the prison industrial complex.

Now, you write a little bit about who's prospering from the prison boom; construction firms, plumbing supply companies, food service programs, some health companies. The phone companies are doing very well in the prisons now. Why are prisons good customers for phone companies?

SCHLOSSER: Well, they're unlikely to be able to change their long distance carriers, and phone calls are really their main -- one of their main links to the outside world. And it's a booming business; I mean, when you have nearly 2 million people locked up, they make a lot of phone calls.

Quite frequently they may collect calls, and the phone companies are now adding surcharge to each call, sometimes as high as $3 a call. So, it's not a business of about a billion dollars a year. Each of the major phone companies has set up its own special prison service.

AT&T has something called "The Authority," MCI has something called "Maximum Security," and in MCI's case they installed phones throughout much of the California prison system for free just as a way of getting a good cut of the business.

GROSS: Would you describe a couple of the phone ads directed at prisoners?

SCHLOSSER: Yeah, well, they put together some very glossy expensive promotional material for their prison phone services. One of them is a black and white photograph on a pamphlet that shows an inmate -- scary looking inmate leaning out of a prison cell, glaring at the camera, and the tag line goes: "how he got in is your business, how he gets out his ours." And then it says: "AT&T the Authority."

And BellSouth has, for its Max Service, an ad with a telephone receiver that has a heavy steel chain dangling from it instead of a chord. So, there's really direct marketing, and mass marketing, and a lot of money being spent on the ad budgets for these services. It's a big business now.

GROSS: Did you look at any of the other catalogs advertising to the prisons?

SCHLOSSER: Well, there are trade publications now that just cater to this industry, and they're full of ads. There are padded cells available in a vast color selection, there are all kinds of trade names for razor wire. One of my favorites is: "silent swordsman barbed tape."

And the same kind of marketing and American advertising promotion that's supplied to mundane products is now being applied to even things like electrified fences which are being advertised with the tag line: "don't touch."

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Eric Schlosser, and he has to cover story in this month's "The Atlantic Monthly" called "The Prison Industrial Complex." Eric, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is Eric Schlosser, and he wrote a story on the prison industrial complex; it's the cover story in this month's "The Atlantic Monthly."

You say that private prisons are both the most controversial and the fastest growing segment of the prison industrial complex. Why are they the fastest growing segment?

SCHLOSSER: Well, they're the fastest growing segment because they promise less expensive incarceration to the states that use them, and large profits to the investors who invest in them, and to the people who go to work for them. In the early 1980s, there were no private prisons in this country, and now there are about 90,000 inmates being housed in private prisons.

It's not a new idea; during the 19th century there were private prisons, and most of them -- almost all of them were shut down because of the incredible corruption and the abuse of inmates that occurred.

A private prison has a built-in economic interest in having as many inmates as possible, and keeping them as long as possible because that's how they make their money.

GROSS: What made it possible for private prisons to open beginning in the mid-'80s?

SCHLOSSER: Well, during the Reagan Administration there was a real push towards smaller government, and towards a privatization of public services. So, on a very small level there were the beginnings of private prisons in the late 1980s.

And it really was in the early 1990s that it took off because of prison overcrowding in a number of states and they were desperate to put their inmates anywhere.

But also, because the Clinton Administration gave a real seal of approval to private prisons by shifting more federal inmates towards them.

GROSS: In your "Atlantic" magazine piece you compare the prison industry to the hotel industry in that they both have financial incentives to keep beds filled. Does the prison -- do the prisons get paid per filled bed?

SCHLOSSER: Well, the price -- the pricing is based on man day, and a man day is one inmate per day in a prison. The price of a man day is $25 to $60 a day, and the more crowded the prison gets, the lower they'll charge for each additional inmate.

It's similar to the hotel industry in that the labor costs are a major major part of the total cost. In prisons the labor costs, that is to pay the guards and staff, is about two-thirds to three-quarters of their total costs. So, the more inmates they can put in each prison -- the labor costs come down relatively from there.

And that's why most of the savings that the private prisons derive is from paying their staff members less money, and I think that's a very important point that isn't really looked at very often in the debate over private prisons.

Very few people would argue on behalf of paying other law enforcement officers like police officers less money, but the private prison industry has really thrived by paying its guards and correctional officers lower salaries and by not paying them pensions.

GROSS: Now, I want to get to the idea of filling beds. You say that there are bed brokers who actually work on commission to fill beds in prisons. How does that part of the business work?

SCHLOSSER: Well, bed brokers are a whole new line of work.

GROSS: Is that what they are actually called? Or is that what you named them?

SCHLOSSER: That's what they're called.

GROSS: That's what they're called.

SCHLOSSER: That's what they're called. They're called bed brokers, and if you want to continue with the hotel analogy they are the travel agents of the prison industry.

When a state prison system has too many inmates and needs to house some of them in a private prison and doesn't know where to find a bed they contact a bed broker, and the bed broker serves as the liaison between the state agency and the private prison.

And in return for finding someplace to put their prisoners, the bed broker gets a fee of anywhere from $2.50 a day to $5.50 a day for having placed an inmate in a prison.

One of the most surreal facts that's come out of this whole private prison boom is Texas has really become the headquarters of the private prison industry in terms of the number of beds.

And the state of Hawaii has been shipping large numbers of its inmates to Texas, and one prison and Texas - the Newton County Correctional Facility - in Newton County Texas became the state of Hawaii's third largest prison in 1996 because of how many inmates were being flown halfway across the world to be locked up in a little rural Texan prison.

GROSS: Is there any government regulation that helps determine where prisoners are sent?

SCHLOSSER: At the moment there is -- there's very little. In terms of the transportation of inmates, there are tougher federal laws about the transportation of cattle than there are of prisoners.

Most of these shipments of prisoners on land are being done in vans and station wagons that are deliberately housing fewer than a dozen inmates in order to avoid interstate commerce laws on transportation companies.

So, there are very few regulations right now in the transport of inmates. Violent inmates and violent offenders are very often being transported back and forth across this country by private companies with very unskilled drivers and guards.

In terms of how the states are regulating the private prisons that are located within their jurisdiction; Texas has changed it's laws and has, you know, added some greater regulation because a few years ago they realized that about 240 sex offenders were being housed in a prison that they thought was just holding illegal immigrants.

And when a few of them escaped they were unable to prosecute the escapees for having escaped because they had run away from a private prison.

So, Texas has now made it illegal to escape from a private prison. But many other states have not passed that sort of law, and a number of states that have private prisons not only have no control over what inmates are being brought into their state, but often don't know what inmates and what sort of violent offenders are being held in their private prisons.

GROSS: Who decides whether a prisoner will do time in a private or state run facility?

SCHLOSSER: The state agency, or now the federal correctional agency decides it, and they do it on the basis of where they have room to put their inmates. The private prison industry really arose as a response to the gigantic growth in the prison population, and state agencies were overwhelmed.

As I mentioned, about 45 of the 50 states are overcrowded so they do it on the basis of were they have room to put the inmate, and how they'd like to house their inmates in a general sense in terms of cost. Private prisons promise a less expensive form of incarceration although it's not actually clear that they ultimately deliver on it.

GROSS: I think some people have the theory that the prison boom is helping to create more demand. The more beds that there are, the more prisoners that there are to fill the beds.

SCHLOSSER: I think that the demand is fueling the extra beds at the moment. At the same time, there've been about a thousand new prisons and jails built in the last 16 or 17 years.

This is a huge capital investment, and now that we have big private prison companies with big capital investment in prisons they have an interest in keeping their beds filled.

One Wall Street report by a Wall Street bank on the private prison industry said that some of the risks of the private prison industry would be that would be a fall in crime; that there would be a move towards alternative sentences for drug offenders; or that there'd be some changes in nations drug laws so that there would be fewer inmates in the future.

This was Wall Street's evaluation of the risks of the prison industry, but ultimately this investment bank still thought it was a good place to invest.

GROSS: Eric Schlosser's article "The Prison Industrial Complex" is the cover story of the current "The Atlantic Monthly." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

Back with journalist Eric Schlosser. His article about the prison boom called "The Prison Industrial Complex" is the cover story of the current edition of the "The Atlantic Monthly."

California built eight new maximum security prisons between 1984 and 94. Schlosser visited one of them; the state prison at Sacramento known as "New Folsom." It's less than a quarter-mile from Folsom Prison which became notoriously crowded in the early '80s.

Schlosser says the old Folsom Prison's granite walls and gun towers give it the appearance of a medieval fortress.

You visited a prison in California that's been nicknamed "New Folsom." What's different about "New Folsom" compared to the other prisons in California.

SCHLOSSER: Well, "New Folsom" is one of eight maximum -- eight or nine maximum security prisons in California. It's considered a Level 4 facility with the most violent offenders in the system, and also people with the longest sentences; with a third strike or a life sentence who are at high risk of escape.

I think the most significant thing that I took away from my visit was have overcrowded it is. When you have a maximum security prison like that double bunking is very dangerous. Basically, that means having two inmates in each cell.

And the tensions within the California prison system are at a very high level; they have an enormous number of gang members from every sort of gang that you can imagine, and the prisons are stretched to put their breaking point simply by how many people have been crammed into them.

GROSS: Now, I think that this prison -- the one known as "New Folsom" has an electric fence around it -- one of the new high-tech fences that's used as maximum security. How does that work? What's it like?

SCHLOSSER: Well, the electrified fences that California's maximum security prisons now have deliver a lethal dose of electricity when they are touched - 5000 volts; and they instantly kill whoever touches them.

And oddly enough, they were a response to the enormous cost of this prison building boom; by having one of these electrified fences around a maximum security prison, the California Department of Correction was able to get rid of having guards in guard towers watching the perimeter.

And as a cost-saving measure they simply put up these fences that are lethal. So far no inmate has been killed by one, but they are a very ominous development, and so far I don't think that any other state has put up one of these death wire electrified fences around its facilities.

GROSS: Are these electric fences controversial within the prison industry?

SCHLOSSER: Well, they have been controversial in the prison world; at first they were controversial because so many birds were being killed by them. And they had to figure out a way to put netting around them in order to protect migrating birds.

They've been controversial among some prison rights activists who say this is capital punishment for trying to escape. Inmates trying to escape have traditionally been shot by guards or shot at by guards so it's not necessarily that more people are being killed, but there's something viscerally about the idea of this gigantic deadly fence that indiscriminately kills anyone who touches it that -- it just has an ominous aura to it.

GROSS: How has new high-technology devices like these death wire fences affected the role of guards at prisons?

SCHLOSSER: Well, in some cases, and especially in the private prison -- new private prisons, the design of the prisons is such as to minimize labor costs. To basically look after his many inmates as possible with as few guards as possible.

So, the new prisons tend to have central control booths with cells around them in a semi circle and it permits a single guard to operate cell doors electronically, and it cuts down on labor costs.

But there are others in corrections who believe that it's very important that correctional officers and inmates work in close proximity, and that correctional officers be in constant dialogue with inmates and that that is a more effective way, ultimately, of overseeing inmates and preventing disturbances, and preventing inmates from harming one another.

It's a more expensive route because you have to pay more correctional officers to be on duty; one of the problems with these electric doors is sometimes they don't work or sometimes inmates figure out a way to jam them, but on the whole I think much of the new technology has been useful. At the same time, things like the electrified fence are a little bit more disturbing.

GROSS: There's a debate about whether this growth in private prisons is a good thing. Can you give us a sense of what the debate is on each side?

SCHLOSSER: Well, there's an ethical debate, and then there's also a more practical debate. The ethical debate is: should we be handing over custody of individuals to private companies who have an enormous power over their lives and have a vested interest in keeping them locked up. So, that's the ethical argument, some people would argue that government should take responsibility for looking after the people who have broken the government's laws.

And then from a purely practical point of view: does it save money? And it's not entirely clear that it does save money. The other point would be if it saves money in the short-term, is it less costly per day to keep an inmate in there -- well, what about the long-term implications.

There is an enormous recidivist rate among inmates, and ideally when you lock people up you would like to release them less likely to come back to prison. So, I guess those are the two questions; an ethical question and then also a practical one.

GROSS: I guess the results aren't really in yet on some of the practical questions because the private prisons haven't been around long enough to really have long-term statistics on recidivism, for instance.

SCHLOSSER: That's right. But I guess one of the other critiques of private prisons is that many of the people who are being sent to them shouldn't be sent to prison at all. I mean, one of the things that we haven't discussed is drug treatment and how the United States is unusual in locking up drug offenders as opposed to giving them treatment.

That's a very large proportion of the prison population, and the private prisons tend to have fewer violent offenders and more nonviolent offenders like drug offenders or drug offenders who are committing property crimes in order to buy drugs.

GROSS: You described how America has proportionately more prisoners than any other country; a lot of the prisons -- a lot of the prisoners in American prisons now are people who have been convicted of drug offenses. What are some of the alternatives to imprisonment that other countries are using for drug offenders?

SCHLOSSER: Well, not only are a lot of the people in American prisons people who've committed drug offenses, but as I mentioned 60 to 80 percent of them are substance abusers. So, even if they've committed a burglary and are in there for burglary it was a property crime to buy drugs.

Other countries, as a first line of defense, tend to use drug treatment and alternative sentences for people who have substance abuse problems. And one of the extraordinary things that's happened in this country while we've been building more prisons is that the number of drug treatment slots has dropped by 50 percent in the last five years.

So, of the drug addicted and substance abusing inmates that we have in this country only one out of every ten have any access to drug treatment. There was a study recently by the Rand Corporation which is hardly a bastion of liberalism that suggested that putting an inmate in drug treatment drug treatment is 10 to 15 times more cost-effective than using mandatory minimum sentences and tough sentences to lock them up.

Effective not only in the number of crimes it prevents, but the money that it saves. So, I guess that's one of the ways in which the United States has really followed and unusual course.

GROSS: Well, give us an example of something that's surprised you a lot, that you've learned doing your research on this piece on the prison industrial complex.

SCHLOSSER: I guess the most surprising thing for me was how big our prison system is and how unusual that is compared to any other country. It's a very distinctively American reaction to crime to lock people up.

And when you look at just the state of California -- the state of California has more inmates than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.

Other countries have found other ways to deal with dysfunctional people, or drug offenders, or people who are breaking laws; and the United States, more than any other country, believes itself to be a citadel of other liberty and the land of the free. And there is this extraordinarily bizarre contradiction that we have this enormous prison system.

So, I guess the thing that really struck me, and that I still think about, is the -- this unusual American trait for locking people up.

GROSS: Well, Eric Schlosser, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SCHLOSSER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Eric Schlosser's article "The Prison Industrial Complex" is the cover story of the current "The Atlantic Monthly."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Wahington, DC
Guest: Eric Schlosser
High: Journalist Eric Schlosser talks about who is profiting from America's prison boom. He is a correspondent for "The Atlantic Monthly." H ewrote this month's cover article entitled "The Prison Industrial Complex."
Spec: Prisons; Crime; Eric Schlosser; Business;

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Eric Schlosser

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 12030203.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Vivien Stern
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guest, Vivien Stern, has written a new book about prisons around the world. She says she wants to examine who ends up in the prisons of the world and who works in them. And to wants to expose the waste, the horror, and the heroism within the growing incarceration business.

Stern is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College in England, and Secretary-General of Penal Reform International. She lives in London.

I asked her to compare the prison rates in America to the prison rates in European democracies.

VIVIEN STERN, AUTHOR, "A SIN AGAINST THE FUTURE: IMPRISONMENT IN THE WORLD": The way we measure imprisonment rates in our world is per hundred thousand of the population. So, we look at everybody's imprisonment rate in relation to that.

And, of course, in those terms the United States is in extraordinary position; the average for the Western European democracies is about 80 -- maybe 80 to 90; and in the United States were talking about 645 per hundred thousand which is, of course, the second highest in the world after Russia.

And Russia, being a European country and now a member of the Council of Europe, is working very hard to bring its prison population down and has started reductions. Whereas in United States, so far, for the last 20 years we've seen a steady increase every year, and it's still running at five percent per year increase.

GROSS: Of all the prisons that you toured in your travels around the world which did you consider the most effective and humane?

STERN: Africa, for instance, is very interesting because in Africa, of course, prison was not part of the culture. And an African who has had a crime committed against him or her doesn't think: right, I want that person to suffer, I want the person to go to prison."

They think: right, I need some redress. I'm entitled to something back for this, and I'm entitled to some recompense for this affront to my dignity, or my family, or my property. And what's the use of prison? If the person goes away, I've got nothing, and probably the persons wife and family are left here, and somebody's got to do their bit to help them to survive.

So, I think, basically, if you go to prisons in Africa you do see a very different attitude between staff and prisoners. I'm not saying that Africa doesn't have its share of brutality because you only have to think of what's happened there in the last few years.

But in terms of imprisonment you will see a prison where staff and prisoners are very considerate of each other; where there's hardly any security at all; where you can have 5 staff and 900 prisoners, and no fear, and no atmosphere, and no tension.

So, in a sense, in terms of relationships, prisons in Africa have got something to teach us. In terms of concern for prisoners rights I think you want to look at some of the countries in Western Europe like Scandinavia, where prisoners are entitled to complain and where there are quite a high level of protections.

But I have to say that overall, in the world, it's very difficult to maintain humanity in a setting where one group of people have been given complete power over another group of people.

GROSS: I'm surprised to hear you say that you saw good things in African prisons. I would've thought though that a lot of the prisons were the outgrowths of the colonial system and that there were very problematic power relationships being expressed inside.

STERN: That doesn't seem to be the case. The buildings are left over from the colonists; the uniforms, they often look like British; the rules of the prison were written 40-50 years ago by the British. But the way the prisons are run is much more in accordance with African ideas.

That, in a sense, if people are their brothers then they're their brothers, and they will treat them as such. And there is a concern to get the prisoners fed, and there is an absence of violence, and an absence of hatred, and there seems to be a mutual respect.

In many countries of the world, the staff look down on the prisoners. They don't necessarily despise them, they look down on them. Certainly, in Africa you get a feeling of: this could have been me. This unfortunate person who has ended up in prison could easily have been me. And there isn't that sense of hatred and contempt that you see in other parts of the world.

GROSS: I think in the United States a lot of prisons have come to be seen as schools for crime. Where you could, in other words, go in for a petty crime and end up being really educated in how to commit more violent high powered crimes.

Is that a typical feeling in other countries that prisons are schools for crimes?

STERN: The institution of prison is a very strange one if you begin to think about it. We want people to stop being criminals, so we send them to a place where all the other people are criminals, and we expect out of that experienced them to learn not to be criminals.

But, of course, what happens is the opposite. A subculture is created; not only a criminal subculture, but also, in a sense, a victim subculture. All of us in here are poor things, we are all victims, we didn't really do what they said we did.

So, it creates, certainly, a school for crime, and in a sense what's worse is the denial of the fact that they did something wrong. That is what prison cultivates, and one of the reasons why I think it's an institution we should stop and be asking some questions about is this really how we want to deal with people who have committed crime? Because in a sense it imposes enormous suffering in one way, and another way it lets them off the hook.

GROSS: Let's them off the hook, how?

STERN: They never have to think about their victim; they are, in a sense, absolved from having to make any redress to the victim because, as the saying goes, once you've done your prison sentence you have paid your debt to society.

So, it lets people off the hook in beginning to think about who they are, what they did, why are they the sort of person that did what they did, and do they want to live the rest of their lives like this. None of that goes on in prison.

GROSS: Have you seen, in any of the countries that you toured and studied, any good alternatives to prison for offenders?

STERN: There are many ways in which you can deal with crime other and then prison. And, certainly, all that prison really does is protect you from people who are dangerous and who might go on doing it again, but it doesn't solve anything.

So, I think what we need to look at it is those alternatives that try and solve the problem, and which try and do something for the victim. New Zealand is a very interesting case where they have been drawing on the culture of the indigenous people in New Zealand, that is Maori people who have always felt that with crime there should be restoration to the victim, redress, and an attempt to awake,in the offender, a sense of conscience and a sense of shame.

And, certainly, with all their young people now they have a system called "Family Group Conferencing" where the young offender is brought face to face with a large number of people with an interest; the victim, the victims family, the offender, the offenders family, people from the community - to talk about what sort of a young person you are.

Why did you do it? How could you have done such a thing? And try and educate, in the best sense, into sympathizing with another person, and then doing something, over many weeks perhaps, to make up for the victim for what they've done.

GROSS: Well, Vivien Stern, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

STERN: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Vivien Stern is the author of "A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Vivien Stern
High: An expert on prison systems around the world, Vivien Stern has written a new book, "A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World." Stern is Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, and Secretary-General of Penal Reform International. She lives in London.
Spec: Prisons; Crime; Vivien Stern

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Vivien Stern

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 12030303.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Kevin Whitehead
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says trumpeter Miles Davis had an infinite capacity for reinventing his music, usually to good ends. That's one reason why no one in jazz has had so many thorough and loving re-issues lately.

Earlier this year we had a box set of airy and lyrical acoustic jazz by his celebrated '60s quintet. Last year there were five double CD sets of his dense jazz funk of the '70s. Kevin says the new Miles Davis reissue, "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" on four CDs, sort of bridges those two periods. It's a portrait of music in transition.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, JAZZ CRITIC: Easy to hear why "Bitches Brew" sold nearly half a million copies on first release in 1970. It's electric colors were still new to jazz, and it had a bubbling groove that sounded like it could go on forever, and it did.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS)

WHITEHEAD: For years, Miles Davis had been pulling jazz away from the gymnastics of improvising over complex chord sequences. "Bitches Brew" was a last along that path. Twenty minute jams on just one or two chords where the musicians could place their comments anywhere in time creating a poly rhythmic soup.

It was a step away from bebop and torrid African music in spirit, if not actual sound.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS)

WHITEHEAD: That's Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, and Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul on electric piano. After some urging from Columbia Records, Miles Davis had decided to pursue the big money rock stars were making.

He was seduced by the same false logic that misled other jazz musicians: "since we know more about music than the rockers, we can make even bigger selling pop records. It never worked out that way.

"Bitches Brew" was a super funky best seller for jazz, but it neither outsold nor out funked by, say, Sly and the Family Stone.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS)

WHITEHEAD: Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, Lenny White, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. "Bitches Brew" had some of the trappings of modern rock; the two chord jam concept was familiar from Neil Young's "Down by the River," also recorded in 1969. And Miles' guitarist, a newcomer from England named John McLaughlin, was for sure a better picker then Neil.

But the music was to amorphous for radio pop. Rock involved simple forms, but not the absence of form. And jamming on one chord is more limiting than true free improvisation which at least allows the possibility of escape. This was more like making sausage: you can keep extruding it endlessly, and divide up later.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS PERFORMING "PHARAOH'S DANCE")

WHITEHEAD: That's "Pharaoh'sDance" from the August 1969 sessions for "Bitches Brew." The reissue of that old two LP set runs to four CDs, tacking on material from five more Miles Davis sessions over the next six months. Almost an hour and a half of it is newly released.

On the later sessions, there's a bit more structure to hang the improvising on; little sonic anchors like the recurring hooks in pop songs. Some of these tunes have as many as three chords, but the overall effect remained to diffuse for airplay.

The focus stayed on exotic instrumental colors with Indian sitar and tambora used as window dressing. These sessions also previewed the most tiresome fashion accessories in '70s jazz; the add-on percussionist armed with shakers, scrapers, clackers, and the dreaded chime rack.

Miles' man was Brazil's Airto Moreira who instantly became the King of Percussion. This is Miles' take on David Crosby's "Guinnevere."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- JAZZ TRUMPETER MILES DAVIS PERFORMING "GUINNEVERE")

WHITEHEAD: Some folks claim producer and tape editor Teo Macero was the real brains behind Miles' music in this period. That idea is shot down by a bit of studio chatter included in the box as an editorial comment.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- RECORDING SESSION, "PITCHES BREW")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: OK, this is going to be part two?

MILES DAVIS, JAZZ TRUMPETER: What difference does it make?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: All right, here we go, standby. This is part something.

WHITEHEAD: Some musicians on these dates, notably Joe Zawinul have insisted they were the real creative forces at work. Miles Davis, as usual, gave his side folk lots of room to create and gave himself a little too much composer credit.

But also as usual, he showed a genius for editing other folks compositions to make them more simple and clear like Count Basie, by the way. Musicians came and went, but Miles followed his own path.

In the next few years his music evolved into the rhythmically denser shifting plates of sound heard on "Miles Davis at Fillmore," and "Dark Magus," and other wah wah funk records that lots of us hated then and love now.

Those records, to these ears anyway, wear a little bit better than "Bitches Brew."

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed the Miles Davis reissue "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" on Columbia.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Kevin Whitehead
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new Miles Davis reissue, "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Jazz; Miles Davis

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Some musicians on these dates, notably Joe Zawinul have insisted they were the real creative forces at work. Miles Davis, as usual, gave his side folk lots of room to create and gave himself a little too much composer credit.

But also as usual, he showed a genius for editing other folks compositions to make them more simple and clear like Count Basie, by the way. Musicians came and went, but Miles followed his own path.

In the next few years his music evolved into the rhythmically denser shifting plates of sound heard on "Miles Davis at Fillmore," and "Dark Magus," and other wah wah funk records that lots of us hated then and love now.

Those records, to these ears anyway, wear a little bit better than "Bitches Brew."

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed the Miles Davis reissue "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" on Columbia.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.

43:04

This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

08:26

This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditr─âu, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue